Water woes

Today [Thursday 29 August 2019] I will be chairing an HQN session on ‘Rethinking Social Housing’ – making sure that the homes we build now will be fit for purpose in 30 years’ time and beyond.

One important aspect of future-proofing our homes is to think more carefully about water. That ranges all the way from sea water levels to rainfall and the domestic use of water. On a global scale, as Matthew Gardiner will point out at the conference, if we fail to limit global warming and all of the earth’s ice melts, then sea levels will rise by up to 70 metres, wiping out much of our housing stock. That is the Armageddon scenario. But in the short term there are many things we can do to use less water (and hence less energy) and to protect our wildlife in the process.

We all take it for granted that clean water comes out of our taps, but we rarely think about the costs and processes that bring it to our homes.

The average person uses 66 cubic metres of precious fresh water a year. That’s nearly four billion cubic metres for the UK if my maths is right, which is equivalent to over 3,000 Wembley Stadiums. Yet too much of this precious fresh water is wasted on watering gardens and flushing toilets and other unnecessary uses. In the process, many of our rivers are drying up.

Feargal Sharkey, the former frontman of The Undertones, has been walking the chalk streams and rivers of England to highlight the problem. He blames the Environment Agency and private water companies for extracting too much water from chalk aquifers and for allowing farmers to use river water to irrigate their fields. As a result, river water quality is declining, and wildlife is suffering. This article explains the problems with the River Cam, which is at 33% of its long-term average flow. In total, 65% of precious groundwater is pumped out of the chalk for drinking water. Absurdly, the water companies then pump water back into the river during the summer months to keep a semi-reasonable flow of water going.

Sharkey says our chalk streams are the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Amazonian rainforest and says, “What hypocrisy that, as this country is chastising Brazil over fires in the Amazonian rainforest and criticising Indonesia about deforestation, we are destroying aglobally rare resource in our own backyard”.


I wrote a blog seven years ago about the fact that we are hopeless at storing water in this country. We allow winter rains to escape to the sea and then drain rivers and aquifers in the summer to water crops. By contrast, in many European countries there is far more investment in storing precious winter rain to use in the summer. Many European homes have underground tanks that can be used for watering or flushing toilets. They are way ahead of us in this area, as you can see from this German website.

On my allotment I have created a rain capture system using old water tanks and water butts. The two larger butts overflow into the two smaller ones. I can adjust the gutter from the shed roof so that each of the two larger tanks can be filled in turn. This is from a shed measuring just 6ft by 8ft. Imagine the amount of water that could be captured from a typical roof – up to 30,000 litres every year, depending upon its location. One inch of rain falling on one acre of land will yield 123,444 litres. Consider the amount that could be captured over the course of a year from the roofs of our housing stock. Not only would this reduce the demand for fresh water but also flooding events could be better controlled if more water was captured and prevented from entering watercourses and flood drains.

What does this all mean for UK housing? Well, if we can reduce the demand for water in our homes then it will help to restore river flows and wildlife habitats and save energy that would otherwise be used to extract, filter and pump fresh water. I know we have been talking about this for years, but housing providers could take the lead by installing better water storage systems and grey water tanks for new homes. The Regulator should be encouraged to include a more effective response to climate change in the Home Standard, to include water storage, and the Building Regulations should be rewritten to require all new homes to have grey water storage systems.

It is absurd that we should be using precious fresh water supplies to water gardens and flush toilets. In any case, plants prefer rainwater to chlorinated tap water!

Next week I will write more about this week’s conference.


(This blog was first published by HQN on the 29th August 2019)

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