Last reviewed 14 January 2020
Despite appearances, water is a commodity under pressure. Laura King looks at why water efficiency needs to be taken seriously and what benefits it can offer.
The UK is not renowned for its sunshine. If asked to describe the ‘classic’ British weather, most people might say “grey”, “drizzle”, “rainy” — we are, after all, an island with most of our weather coming in from over the Atlantic.
However, with pressures such as our growing population and the risk of more droughts due to climate change, water resources are, in actual fact, coming under increasing pressure. In its 2018 report, Preparing for a Drier Future, the National Infrastructure Commission (NIC) stated that “without further action there is roughly a 1 in 4 chance over the next 30 years that large numbers of households will have their water supply cut off for an extended period because of a severe drought”.
In a speech at the Waterwise Conference on 19 March 2019, Sir James Bevan, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, spoke of the “Jaws of Death”. The Jaws of Death he described are not a bad horror movie — not yet at least — but instead describe a point on a graph, about 20-25 years from now, where the line representing the rising demand for water crosses the line representing the decreasing supply. The point at which those lines cross is the point at which our need for water outstrips the amount available to use.
This point is very real, and is one that is highlighted by the NIC’s report, as well as many of the water companies’ business plans. Sir Bevan talks of three things that are needed to avoid this scenario from happening:
Firstly, fully understanding the predictions for climate change, population growth and environmental need;
secondly, doing something about it by reducing demand and increasing supply;
and thirdly, thinking and acting differently to improve the situation.
Improving resilience makes financial sense
Improving resilience makes good business sense for water companies. After all, it is unlikely they will allow water to be cut off. However, in the absence of any additional work to increase resilience within the network, emergency measures to maintain water supplies during periods of drought are predicted to cost in the region of £40 billion over the next 30 years. The corresponding cost of building the required resilience is almost half that, at £21 million.
As a result, water companies are taking action. One example of this is Thames Water’s pilot programme in which it is working with water retailers who help customers in the water-stressed London and Thames area to reduce water use.
In the pilot, Thames Water is rewarding in-region retailers with a one-off payment of 5p per litre per day of water saved for each of their non-household customers. Savings will be measured by comparing three months of meter data before and after any water efficiency interventions are made.
Water efficiency and good business practice
However, it doesn’t just make sense for water companies to reduce usage. According to statistics from WRAP, the average business in the UK is using 30% more water than needed. Reducing this level of consumption makes good business sense from a number of perspectives:
It saves money — businesses pay for the water they use, as well as waste water generated. Using less water will therefore reduce costs incurred for both clean and waste water. Furthermore, if the business is one where a lot of water is used, for example, restaurants or golf courses, saving a little water can actually amount to a sizable sum.
It increases the resilience of the business to increases in water costs, or scarcity of supply.
It will help the business comply with current and future environmental legislation.
It helps protect the environment by preserving natural resources; this is good for the company’s environmental performance and for corporate social responsibility efforts.
Croner-i’s Water Management topic outlines a practical water management system that can help reduce water consumption, and includes a number of resources including a Water Management Toolkit. Externally, a number of other resources have also been published to help businesses save water, including the following.
WRAP provides several guides on water efficiency, how to develop a plan to monitor, track and improve water efficiency, as well as guidance on behaviour change.
Guidance on Resource Efficient Scotland’s website includes information on how to implement a water minimisation programme.
Business Wales’s website includes information on simple steps to reduce water use.
Waterwise, a UK-wide not-for-profit NGO, has guides on its website for businesses and schools.
These resources can be a useful starting point to identify any gaps in the organisation’s management of water and to outline a plan of action. It is also worth checking what water efficiency services are provided by the organisation’s water retailer. As it is possible to switch retailers in the same way you might switch energy providers at home, it might be worth shopping around to see what services are offered by other rival retailers if the help provided is not quite what you need.
Water efficiency verses water conservation
One important point to keep in mind when embarking on any efforts to reduce water usage is the difference between water efficiency and conservation. Although both achieve the same end result, water efficiency is about doing more with less (for example, a more efficient tap) whereas water conservation is the sum of all policies and activity that helps people use less water through behaviour change (for example, not leaving a tap running).
Both have their place, but whilst water efficiency measures will provide instant results, work to change attitudes can take more time. In this respect, much can be learned from the health and safety arena. For example, we all know from our day-to-day working lives that the things that management place value on have an influence on how we work. Within the relatively mature industry of health and safety, where behaviour change on sites or in workplaces is one of the final areas for improvement, positive recognition for safe behaviours has been shown to have an impact on the behaviour of workers and improve safety. In the same way, to have a truly resource-efficient environment, sustainable behaviours need to be encouraged and deemed as important to managers as individual or group output. (See our topic on Behaviour Change to Drive Savings).
Water is a precious resource that needs to be better managed — if not, we are predicted to hit a point in 20-25 years’ time where demand outstrips supply.
Businesses have a number of things to gain from improving water efficiency, not least reduced bills and a greater resilience to the future cost of water or changing environmental legislation.
There are a number of resources available to help businesses manage and reduce water consumption, including in Croner-i’s Water Management topic.