We’re fortunate in the UK to have access to clean drinking water anytime we turn on the tap. But where does it comes from and what does it takes to deliver such high quality water to our homes?
Water in the South, including in Southampton, Hampshire and Portsmouth, is predominantly supplied by groundwater. North Hampshire relies on it exclusively, whereas South Hampshire gets two-thirds of its water from the River Test and River Itchen. The groundwater comes from the chalk aquifer, which depends on rainfall to replenish its stocks. Rainfall, especially in the autumn and winter when evaporation is low, soaks through the wet soil and percolates into the aquifer. To raise the water table 10m roughly requires 100mm of water. The chalk aquifer is particularly sensitive to pollution.
Although sometimes it seems like the rain will never stop, most of the region is considered to be ‘water-stressed’, meaning that the demand for water sometimes outstrips the water available. A big downpour in summer won’t necessarily recharge the groundwater; much of the rain could evaporate and, if the ground isn’t first “wetted up”, the rain might run off into rivers and lead to flooding in some places.
Water scarcity will only be exacerbated by climate change (more extreme & unpredictable weather, higher temperatures and evaporation rates) and our growing population (increased water demand). And it’s not just humans who need water to survive – wildlife also depend on it. The Environment Agency has to carefully control how much water is abstracted to make sure that ecosystems are not damaged. The water scarcity problem in the South is so concerning that Southern Water and Portsmouth Water have plans to create a new reservoir in Hampshire next to Havant Thicket.
On average, we use 142 litres of water per person per day, which is more than twice the amount we used 25 years ago. (The current figure is likely to be higher as a result of the pandemic: more people worked from home, fewer went away on holidays, and there was a heightened focus on cleaning hands, laundry, dishes and the home.) It’s the equivalent of more than 4 wheelie bins full of water every week – for every person in your household! Showers and toilets use almost half of all water consumed at home.
But it’s not only water that we’re consuming. Water has embodied carbon emissions, meaning carbon emissions are generated in supplying, using and disposing of water. The majority of the carbon emissions come from heating that water, although 11% is due to pumping and treating the water.
The average water bill is £408/year. (This includes the water supplied to the property as well as wastewater charges, which are a percentage of the total freshwater used.) Coupled with the cost of heating water for baths, showers, washing up and cuppas, an average household could be spending £625 annually for their water needs. A recent review by the Consumer Council for Water (CCW) found that millions of UK households struggle to pay for water.
Unfortunately water isn’t the only thing we’re sending down our drains. Wet wipes, nappies and fats, oils and greases (FOGs) are being flushed away, causing potential blockages – the most infamous being London’s fatberg, which was on display. Plastics, including microplastics, are also being washed into our water systems – 8 million pieces end up in our oceans every day. Not only does this affect wildlife that can become entangled in the litter or starve with stomachs full of plastic pieces; plastic contamination also makes its way up the food chain.
Another source of water contamination happens when our water infrastructure becomes overloaded, for example during heavy storms. Storm overflows are used in exceptional circumstances to release diluted wastewater into rivers and water courses. Their use has jumped in recent years, although this is partly because of better monitoring. Find information about the bathing water quality near you.
Water suppliers and other stakeholders are calling for a water consumption target of 100 litres per day for personal water use. There are lots of ways we can become more water efficient, but where do we start?
Have a look at your water bill. If you have a water meter, you’ll be charged based on the amount of water you actually consume. If you don’t have a water meter, your supplier will consider the type and size of your property, as well as other factors, and bill you accordingly.
Paying for what we use helps us to be more conscious of the water we are using, and encourages us to save because we know that every drop of water we waste is literally ‘money down the drain’. Although average daily water consumption is 142 litres per person, customers without a water meter use 166 litres compared to 126 litres for those with water meters. Request a water meter, if you don’t already have one, to find out how much water you use, but bear in mind your bills could increase if you use more than your supplier estimates. Find out who supplies your water.
Metered water bills depict exactly how much water is consumed, which you can compare to your previous use as well as water use in a typical household.
You can also track your water use by reading your water meter. The meter is generally located in the pavement or your driveway or in a wall-mounted meter box. A quick calculation can indicate if your water usage has gone up, down or remained the same.
If you notice that your water usage is higher than usual, figure out why. A leaky loo or dripping tap are often to blame. Check your toilet for leaks or learn to fix a dripping tap. If you need to call a plumber, switch off your isolation valve and/or stop valve, depending on where the leak is. Find your inside stop valve and outside stop valve and learn how to use these before a problem arises. Ask your water supplier if they offer free or subsidised repairs. If not, search for qualified plumbers on the Watersafe directory. Leaks must be repaired within 14 days of being confirmed; suppliers can otherwise proceed with enforcement under the Defective Water Fittings legislation. Notify your supplier once the leak is fixed – you may be lucky to get a leakage allowance to cover the cost of the water lost during that time.
The biggest water-saving opportunities are in the bathroom: showers, toilets, baths and sinks use more than two-thirds of all water used in the home. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
Outside the bathroom, you can make additional water savings by implementing the following ideas:
For those of us lucky enough to have a garden, follow these top tips:
Deliver water direct to the roots of your plants with this simple technique
Many water companies are supporting residents to save water and reduce the strain on the sewer system. Your supplier may be able to fit water saving devices in your home or fix a leak, so contact them to find out more.
Help stop sewage-related litter by being mindful of your waste. Our sewers are only designed to handle the 3Ps (pee, poo and paper) – avoid flushing anything else down the toilet. But there are other ways litter can end up in our waterways as well – are you an accidental litterer? Dropped cigarette butts are the most common form of littering and are incredibly toxic to marine life, so bin the butt.
Microplastics are also a huge problem, many of which are shed from our synthetic clothing during the washing process. Choose natural fibres wherever possible, like linens and cottons, or use a washing bag, microfiber catcher or filter to reduce this form of plastic pollution.
In the kitchen, fats, oils and greases (FOGs) are the main culprit and can cause blockages as they harden in the pipework. Collect FOGs in a container and, once full, discard it in the bin.
It’s not just the water that comes from our taps that we are responsible for. Every person also has a much larger indirect ‘water footprint’. This indirect water footprint refers to the amount of water used in producing our food and other items that we buy. For example, an 800g loaf of bread takes about 1,300 litres of water to produce – and a kilogram of beef takes 15,400 litres of water. You can find out more about how much water is used in industry and agriculture by visiting the Water Footprint website. Minimise your water footprint by reducing food waste and limiting your meat/dairy intake. Also consider swapping liquid cleaning products for solid ones, like shampoo bars, which also cuts down on the associated carbon emissions from transporting these products.
Whilst we’re trying to do all the right things to save water, not all companies share this ethos. Some “water grabbing” corporations purchase land and water rights that leave local populations facing severe water shortages. Do you know who your investments are funding? Divest from companies who hog water.
Conserving water might not be enough to make your bills affordable. For households on a low income or with medical needs that require extra water, discounts or caps on water bills could help. Ask your water supplier about the social tariffs they offer.
Properties that have soakaways – underground pits where surface water (e.g., rainwater) is piped to instead of the public sewer – can also benefit from rebates. Read more about surface water drainage.
The recent spotlight on water affordability has also prompted many water suppliers to offer grants to customers experiencing financial difficulty. Speak to your supplier about the available support.
We can’t continue to take water for granted. By reducing our demand for water and being mindful of our waste, we can help create a more resilient future. Check out these other resources: