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When in drought… save water!

A third of the UK is now officially in drought. Nearly 20 million homes (mostly in the south, east and midlands) are set for a hosepipe ban, to help reduce water use and ease pressure on drought-hit rivers.

But hosepipe bans are only a short-term solution. And even with those bans in place it’s unlikely we’ll get enough rainfall in the next six months to avoid significant environmental damage. So there are other vital steps we need to take...

Dried-up Kingsmeads Wetlands Nature Reserve in Hertfordshire

Between now and September we’d need 120% of our average rainfall in order to meet water demands from UK homes, industry and agriculture.

Dried-up river bed of the river Lavant in West Sussex.

This doesn’t even include water needed to restore natural environments, like rivers and underground aquifers, that have been suffering for decades from unsustainable abstraction - too much water taken out too often, for too long.

All the water we use comes from rivers and the natural environment. Our rivers have been running dry or getting too low since last summer - this is having a devastating effect on wildlife such as trout, salmon and water voles.

So anything we can do to reduce the water we take will lessen the impact.

We can’t control the rain, but we can control the way we manage and use water. The government and water industry must work together with the public and other water users to change the way we use (and waste) water in the UK.

Two of the most effective ways to improve the UK’s water management:

  • reform the outdated licensing regulations for water abstraction
  • water metering in all homes!
We also need better public education about water issues so that everyone - from farmers to families - will know why it's so important to savour every last drop of water, and protect our rivers.

Water myth-busting…

Myth 1 - drought is natural, caused by the weather, so we can’t control its impacts.

The dried up bed of the River Mimran in Hertfordshire

While it’s true our natural weather cycle means periods of drought and flood are natural, the environmental drought we’re seeing now is a combination of low rainfall and high levels of water extraction.

It’s a symptom of the unsustainable way we manage water in this country and the high levels of water waste.

The current drought could be a sign of things to come as the climate changes. It’s so important that the government acts now to introduce the necessary legislation this year, allowing water companies to reduce unsustainable levels of extraction from rivers as part of their normal business planning.

Myth 2 - if water companies invested in more reservoirs we’d be able to store more water


Reservoirs sound like a great solution - but at the moment many reservoirs in the south and east are well below average levels as there hasn’t been enough rain or river flow to fill them up.

We need to get better at coping with longer, more frequent dry periods, which are likely as the climate changes. We need to be careful we don’t invest huge amounts of money is reservoirs that - at the key times - won’t be full.

This is why it’s important that we reduce demand for water and address leakage, alongside any building of new resources.

Myth 3 - a national water grid, sharing water between regions, would mean we’d all have plenty all year

River, WWF/D Southern

Maximising connections between water company supplies might help, as could a better network of pipes. But first there must be sufficient safeguards in place to be sure it doesn’t result in more water being taken from rivers already suffering from water stress.

We’d also caution against using our rivers and waterways to transport water, as this could impact the ecology through changes in water chemistry and spread of invasive species.

Pumping water around takes a lot of energy too.

At the moment a third of the water we take from the environment is wasted. So we’d like to see government and water companies address the issue of waste before spending customer’s money building a national grid.

Myth 4 - water meters don’t help, they just make water companies more money.

The case for metering

Water metering really is part of the solution. Households on a water meter use 10-15% less water than average. Meters are also essential for driving down leakage as they help water companies to identify leaks quickly.

A nationally co-ordinated switchover to water meters would save bill payers £1.5bn compared to the slower business-as-usual switching.

By 2015, half of households in England and Wales will have a water meter. We’ve been pushing for 80% in the areas where they’re most needed by 2020.

UK drought survival guide: easy water-saving tips

Saving water every day does not need to be life-changingly hard. Simple steps will make a big difference...

Water running into sink

At home:

1. Shorter showers - cutting a minute off your shower could save seven litres of water. A five-minute shower should be the maximum - quicker if possible. Use a timer, or sing a three-minute pop song! And switching to an aerated shower head will help use each drop more efficiently.
2. Use a bowl in the kitchen sink - so you use less water when washing dishes or vegetables. When you’re done, use the (cooled) water for your plants or garden, or even to rinse cans and bottles before recycling them.
3. Turn off taps - a running tap uses on average four litres per minute. Turning off the tap while brushing your teeth can save 13 litres a day.
4. Fit a dual-flush toilet - opting for a half-flush can save up to seven litres of water every time. Or use a Save-a-Flush or Hippo (cistern displacement device) which effectively reduces the capacity of your cistern and cuts the amount of water used when you flush the loo.
5. Stop drips - a dripping tap can waste more than 60 litres a week, thousands in a year. Turn off all your taps fully and fix leaky taps around the home.
6. Fill washing machines - they can use 55 litres of hot water per cycle. If you wait till there’s a full load, you can save around 58 litres a week.

Close-up of child watering plants

In the garden:

1. Mulch - a protective layer on the soil prevents moisture loss: you can use pebbles, gravel, chipped bark, grass clippings…
2. Selective watering - in dry weather focus on more vulnerable or new plants, or ones with wilting leaves. Don't use a hosepipe (even where it's allowed), and water directly to the plant's roots, not the leaves.
3. Prevent evaporation - if you need to water the garden, do it in the cool of the early morning or evening, not in hot sun.
4. Get a rainwater butt - connect it to the downpipe from your roof gutters to capture all that precious rainfall, and reuse (cooled) bathwater or dishwater on the garden too.
5. Let the plants do some work - watering little and often might not be the best idea: it can encourage roots to stay near the surface instead of going deep down in search of water.
6. Put it in the ground - baskets and pots often need a lot of watering, whereas plants in the ground benefit from groundwater.