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Liquid blue gold

Laura Sevier

26th March, 2009

Laura Sevier reports on why we shouldn’t be taking our water for granted, as well as offering some easy ways to avoid wasting it

Demand for water is growing. In the UK we use some 150 litres of water a day, enough to fill 15 buckets and almost 50 per cent more water than we used 25 years ago. Water-hungry devices such as power showers, dishwashers and washing machines are largely responsible for this surge in water use. The question is, should we be worried? Living in a country where drizzle, downpour and occasional flooding are the norm, and where water is so cheap and available – at only £1 per 10,000 litres – we can afford to take our plentiful water supply for granted, right?

Wrong, according to Waterwise, an independent UK NGO that is focused on decreasing water consumption. The UK has less available water per person than any other EU country apart from Belgium and Cyprus. London is drier than Istanbul and, due to its high population and low rainfall, the south-east of England has less water available per person than the Sudan or Syria. Even after the summer of 2007, the wettest since UK national climate records began in 1914, Waterwise says there are still low groundwater levels across south-east England.

Saving water will ensure the water we do get lasts and reduce the pressure on the water supply – as well as on the environment. According to a 2003 WWF survey, for instance, more than 500 wetlands in England and Wales are drying out due to decades of over-abstraction. Wetlands play a valuable role in safeguarding water supplies for people and wildlife alike.

‘Whether there is a drought or not, people still need to save water,’ says the Environment Agency’s Lisa Beechey. ‘We need to save it in the long term – it’s about preserving precious resources.’

Especially when you look at the bigger picture. The expected increase in global water use by 2020 stands at 40 per cent, according to the UN. If the world continues consuming water at the same rate, an estimated 2.7 billion people will face severe water shortages by the year 2025 (1.1billion worldwide already lack access to clean drinking water). Water may cover 70 per cent of the planet, but 97 per cent of that is undrinkable seawater. Another two per cent is locked up in polar ice caps, leaving just one per cent for human use – half of which is polluted. It’s high time we started treating water as blue gold.

What you can do

Water meters can be useful for raising awareness of how much water you are using. It costs nothing to switch to metering and anyone can ask their water company to install a free meter. Depending on your water usage and circumstance, a meter could save you money on your water bill. A survey carried out by Uswitch (www.uswitch.com) showed that some families could save up to £150 a year by installing one. But you don’t need a meter to realise that the real key to water efficiency is reducing waste.

So, starting with the taps, follow this guide to saving water…

Bathroom

Taps: A recent survey carried out by Which? found that nearly 40 per cent of adults still leave the tap running while brushing their teeth (wasting over six litres per minute). We could save enough water to supply half a million homes if we all turned the tap off. A dripping tap wastes at least 5,500 litres of water a year – enough to fill a paddling pool every week for the whole summer – so replace the tap washer and save around £18 a year.

• The art of flushing: A quarter of all drinkable water we use in our homes is flushed down the toilet. Fit a water-saving ‘Hippo’ or ‘save-a-flush’ device in your cistern to cut the amount of water you use when you flush. Your water company may supply it for free. If you’re buying a new toilet, go for one that is water-efficient or has a dual flush. See www.waterwise.org.uk

Baths or shower? A bath can use up a lot of water (over 100 litres), while a standard shower only uses a third of the amount. Power showers actually use more than a bath if you’re in them for more than five minutes.

Kitchen

Dirty dishes: Hand-washing dishes using a bowl instead of under a running tap saves up to 20 litres a day. A modern dishwasher can use as little as 15 litres of water per cycle; older models can use up to 50 litres.

Washing machines: A full load uses less water than two half-loads.

Need a new dishwasher or washing machine? Go for a water-efficient model. Visit www.waterwise.org.uk to see which machines are the best.

A cool drink: Fill a jug with tap water and put in the fridge to avoid running taps for ages just to get a cold drink.

Fruit and veg: Wash in a bowl instead of beneath a running tap, then use the leftover water to feed your plants.

Five top tips for the garden

Soak n’ mulch: In dry weather, soak the roots of your plants once or twice a week – it’s better than lightly watering them every day (unless they are new plantlings) because most of that water evaporates. Mulches such as pebbles, gravel, chipped bark and grass clippings will keep water-hungry weeds away, cool soil, decrease evaporation and feed your plants.

Sprinkler etiquette: Sprinklers can use as much as 1,000 litres of water per hour – more than a family of four can use in a whole day. Either use your sprinkler early in the morning or late in the evening. Less water will evaporate and more gets to the roots.

Watering cans: Just 30 minutes with a hosepipe will use more water than the average family consumes in a day. Use a watering can instead, or consider fitting your hose with a trigger-gun to control the flow.

Used water: Use ‘grey’ water (waste water from baths, sinks and so on) to water your garden flowers, but don’t use it on edible herbs or veg. If it contains strong detergents, don’t use it at all as it might damage your plants. You can divert used water from your bath or shower directly into a water butt with a Bath Water Diverter, available from www.naturalcollection.com

Harvest the rain: Buy a water butt to collect the rainwater from your roof. The average roof collects about 85,000 litres of water a year – enough to fill 450 water butts with free water for thirsty plants. ‘Harvesting’ rainwater also reduces the risk of flooding during storms, acting as a buffer before the water hits the drains. They are priced between £40 and £80, depending on size and material (plastic, wood or terracotta). Using rainwater indoors for flushing toilets or washing clothes is tricky but possible: you just need a bigger tank, a different set of pipes, an electric pump and some filters. It’s expensive (£2000 to £3000) but could save you money in the long run, with a payback time of 10 to 15 years. Visit www.rainharvesting.co.uk for details.

Water filters

On the whole, UK tap water is pretty good. According to the Drinking Water Inspectorate, the vast majority of water samples pass industry standards for levels of impurities. But this doesn’t make it 100 per cent ‘pure’. Tap water is disinfected with chemical cleansers such as chlorine – which can morph into harmful chlorine by-products (CBPs), some of which are known carcinogens – and aluminium, which has been linked with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Fluoride, added to the water supply of around 10 per cent of the UK population, can increase the risk of various cancers, brittle bones and damage the immune system. Other contaminants could include nitrates from fertilisers, pesticides, toxic metals (such as lead and mercury), solvents and pharmaceutical drugs including antibiotics, hormones and chemotherapy chemicals.

Filtering devices can remove a substantial amount of these contaminants. Simple Jug filters (£15-£25) remove chlorine and toxic metals such as lead; some remove nitrates. If you’re after filtered water fresh from a tap, go for a plumbed-in filter under the sink. Reverse-osmosis filters (£300-£900) are the most effective and use a fine membrane to filter out water under pressure.

Water distillers (£200-£400) can be fitted under a sink or put on a kitchen surface. Water is boiled and cooled, leaving behind any contaminants – almost all – whose boiling points is above that of water.

Ecotip

Where to buy water filters online

  • Under-the-sink systems

www.freshwaterfilter.com

www.simplywater.com

www.uk-water-filters.co.uk

www.kinetico.co.uk

  • Filter jugs

www.naturalcollection.com

www.ecoutlet.co.uk

www.ecotopia.co.uk

For more information on saving water, go to www.waterwise.org.uk

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2008


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