Last reviewed 1 May 2012

Energy efficiency is fast becoming a way of UK business life. Should water efficiency be equally intuitive? Despite grand plans to move water en mass around Britain, will behavioural change prove the main answer to supply sustainability, asks Jon Herbert?

“Uncontrolled urinal flushing can easily account for most of the water used in public and commercial buildings.”

This verbatim quotation from the Environment Agency may at first sound like small beer. But incremental action to progressively reduce water use and wastage on a micro-scale is deadly serious. Particularly at a time when Severn Trent is discussing selling 30 million litres of excess water a day to Anglian Water and the former chairman and chief executive of Dwr Cymru Welsh Water, John Elfed Jones, has suggested that water is a business and should be sold like oil to make money.

Better plumbing is part of a long catalogue of quick-win steps that the Environment Agency and government bodies are asking businesses to tackle in combating long-term drought and water-shortage problems, which increasingly divide the UK’s dry south and east from the wetter north and west.

The strategic advice is that saving water will also save firms real money, as attitudes change towards the bounty of nature that used to fall quite regularly from grey British skies. There is growing evidence that a long-term change in rain patterns may be inevitable. Primary causes are now thought to be global warning effects in the Arctic, plus sun cycles that vary the amount of ultra-violet radiation striking the upper atmosphere and affecting weather systems far below. Wind and ocean current patterns change as a result. The water-carrying jet stream is less reliable.

Although dramatic engineering schemes to transport water strategically across the UK are feasible, the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) conclude that local solutions can still make fresh water supplies sustainable. They include regional reservoir extensions, pipelines and connections between adjacent water companies, and a change in public perception to routine water use at home. Leadership is also needed from businesses that includes, but goes well beyond, the efficient use of toilets.

Building resilience

Water is just one of many issues highlighted at the end of March by Environment Minister Lord Taylor. He called on investors and shareholders to maintain pressure on companies to prepare for climate change as essential in a strategy for long-term growth.

New research commissioned by Defra has found that less than 50% of major British companies have plans in place to meet climate change impacts. This despite more than 80% saying that they view climate change events as substantial risks to their commercial activities and survival.

Research by the Carbon Disclosure Project finds that only 46% of FTSE 100 companies questioned have adaption plans within their business strategies.

Of shareholder responsibilities, Lord Taylor said: “Investors that want to keep share prices high must stress the need for action to prepare for climate change. They can provide incentives to businesses to not only consider the long-term risks of climate change but also the opportunities that can be grasped now.”

Defra has released a summary of infrastructure actions being taken to protect roads, railways, energy and water networks.

But changing attitudes to unrestricted water usage were highlighted specifically by Parliamentary Under Secretary of State Richard Benyon, who recently told a Waterwise conference that “business-as-usual” was no longer an option. He added that: “…we need to see step changes in behaviour, the sort of changes we have seen over the last 20 years or so when it comes to energy efficiency. I hope this drought proves just the sort of stimulus to bring about a similar change in attitudes to how we use water so that water saving behaviour and decisions become the norm, not the exception.”

Action this day

Mr Benyon pointed out that current water shortage conditions are less threatening than the 1976 drought because Defra and the Environment Agency have taken early steps with water companies, business and other stakeholders to mitigate against local difficulties, albeit on a regional scale.

From November 2011 to February 2012, three Drought Permits and one Drought Order were issued allowing water companies to refill reservoirs more quickly. In March, seven water companies announced temporary usage bans taking effect from 5 April — commonly called hosepipe bans.

While behavioural changes could still offset calamity, Defra’s recent water summit decided to set up a national drought group to improve strategic co-ordination and planning, should the situation become more serious. The dual approach is to suppress demand while increasing water supply resilience through a greater number of cost-effective parochial infrastructure links designed to increase flexibility.

“Large-scale infrastructure investment is expensive, and water is heavy, difficult and costly to move. Relatively local connections are likely to be the best option, incrementally building a wider and more integrated network,” said Mr Benyon.

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, recently resurrected a concept first discussed in the 1940s to build a network of canals bringing water from the “mountains to the breadbasket” of the south and east. In 1973, the then Water Resources Board produced a strategic report suggesting a nationwide mesh of barrages, aqueducts, tunnels and reservoir extensions to safeguard water as a national commodity. After the Board was disbanded, privatisation placed a greater emphasis on regional catchment solutions which persists today.

The Environment Agency dusted off the proposals in 2006 but concluded that while they were feasible — six parallel, 1.6m-diameter pipelines could supply London from the northern Pennines — the cost would be five to eight times more expensive than the local solutions now being considered. Water companies will henceforth be expected to demonstrate how they plan to reduce demand per person. In designated stress areas, or where demand is above the national average, they must show how overall consumption can be reduced during the first five years.

What can businesses do?

A raft of legislative measures will go through Parliament during 2012, including a new Water Bill. While many change the fundamental platform for fair and practical water sustainability, proposals could take years to implement. This places an even greater emphasis on businesses to act early in their own interests. The Environment Agency lists key steps ordinary companies can take to become more water efficient, with links to other advice easily implemented in manufacturing plants, yards, offices and on farms.

Many of the recommendations are logical quick wins. They include care in turning off taps, fixing leaks and ensuring maintenance staff are well briefed. Windows and cars should be cleaned less often, provided health and safety are not compromised. Only vehicle headlights, mirrors and windows need to be clear. It is good practice to encourage employees to use water wisely at home and at work. Water companies can also help in saving water.

Envirowise notes that businesses do not have to wait for droughts to begin benefiting from water efficiency. Water and wastewater charges are not fixed costs, it points out. Many companies save up to 50% of their water costs through simple, low-cost minimisation steps. Manufacturing firms are urged to continuously monitor water costs and regularly compare usage against output. Service companies can make similar comparisons against staff numbers.

Another simple step is to appoint a water monitor staff member who walks round sites regularly to identify saving opportunities. Employees often have very practical recommendations as the people working on the ground. Pipes should also be well-insulated against frost damage. There is often ample scope to reuse process water too, or greywater and rainwater sources. Maintaining water-using equipment and checking for leaks is equally important.

Water-efficiency is also important in all procurement decisions, albeit that initial costs are higher. Another priority is to fit control devices such as push taps, flow regulators, cistern displacement systems, self-activated urinals and low-flush toilets.

Savings depend on use and management, taking into account hidden costs that include energy for pumping, dirty water treatment, staff time, plus horticultural crop quality and livestock problems. Using hot water unnecessarily has a greater climate change impact.

Britons are accustomed to living in a water-plentiful environment and our water-use statistics are historically high. Citizens in England and Wales use, on average, 150 litres each day. By 2020, water demand could rise by an additional 800 million litres daily, with most used for washing and toilet flushing, drinking, cooking and garden watering. The UK now uses some 50% more water than 25 years ago in power showers and more household appliances.

Domestic hot water accounts for 35 million tonnes of greenhouse gases annually. Each family adds, on average, some 1.5 tonnes every year. The Government’s ambition is to cut personal use by 20 litres to 130 litres as soon as possible.

Waterless urinals use no water, except for daily cleaning, and are now in widespread use. They include effective odour and blockage traps. In comparison, loos without controls flush continuously. This means that during a 40-hour working week, 76% of flushing happens when buildings are empty — an unaffordable luxury. For greater insights into this fascinating subject, see the Environment Agency website.