Drinking our rivers dry

Cath Hassell

Cath Hassell of ech2o consultants ltd
reviews Panorama's investigation into
over-abstraction from the UK's rivers
and argues that simple behaviour change
solutions can play a major role in reducing water stress in the UK.

(this article was first published in Green Building Magazine, Winter 2011)


Large parts of the UK are under moderate or severe water stress and 25% of the UK's rivers are at risk from over abstraction. In an attempt to alleviate these environmental pressure points, there is a UK target to reduce water consumption from an average of 150 litres/person/day to 130 litres. This 13% reduction can be achieved through a combination of water meters for all domestic consumers, simple technological solutions (e.g. reducing WC flush volumes and shower flow rates) and changing behaviour. In fact, the average user could easily achieve a 20 litres per day reduction through behaviour change alone. It is three minutes less in the shower, running the bath taps for a couple of minutes less time, or, if you wash up under running water, by using the soapy sponge method followed by a quick rinse.

However, watching Panorama's “Drinking Our Rivers Dry”1 you could be forgiven for thinking that the solution is trading water between different areas of the UK and lies in the hands of OfWat, the Environment Agency and the Water Companies. None of the talking heads on the programme mentioned the important role that behaviour change can have on reducing water stress in the UK and yet it is free, empowers the individual, and, crucially, reduces CO2 emissions as most savings from behaviour change result in shorter showers or shallower baths and therefore less hot water.

The programme centred on the over abstraction of water from the River Kennet in Wiltshire, a chalk stream river fed by an underground aquifer. Thames Water is currently abstracting 10,000m3 of water a day from this aquifer2 , 7,000m3 of which is completely lost to the river as it is piped 15 miles north to supply South Swindon, and, once used, is cleaned and fed into the River Ray, a tributary of the Thames. The effect on the Kennet is stark; compared to the healthy river upstream of the Axford borehole, downstream the river bed is covered in silt, algae clogs the little plant life there is, and fish, invertebrates and other wildlife are rare. In order to protect the chalk stream environment, the Environment Agency has estimated that 3000m3 less water a day should be abstracted.

When the water industry was privatised the newly formed water companies were allowed to make profits from capital projects as an encouragement to modernise the crumbling infrastructure of the water and sewage industry, but not from operational expenditure. Therefore driven by a requirement to make profits for shareholders, it is hardly surprising that capital expenditure, e.g. new reservoirs or desalination plants, takes precedence over reducing consumption. The original idea was that behaviour change would be a core part of the programme, highlighted as one of the main solutions to reduce water consumption and would centre on a family in Wroughton, South Swindon. To save water successfully individuals need to understand how much and where they use it, analyse the easiest savings to make, and then act on that knowledge. Any advice must be focussed, relevant and culturally specific, which is at the core of all the behaviour change work we do at ech2o.

A family of four with two young children was chosen and I was asked to analyse their current use, recommend relevant changes and then analyse the results. The base information that I was given was that the McRobie family were aware of the need to save water, so Jamie and Marie had a shower instead of a bath, the two kids normally shared a bath, they rarely watered the garden using a hose, and switched off the tap while brushing their teeth.

When I met them they told me they assumed they used less water than average but didn't know how much the average use was! At their house I measured flow rates and assessed all water using appliances. The washing machine and dishwasher were 10 years old and not very efficient, but the house had 6/4 litre dual flush WCs and the main shower was aerated with a flow rate of 8 litres/minute. When the family began to discuss exactly how they used water, it was clear where the best potential for saving water was. For example, they had never timed their showers but thought they were in for about 10 minutes, the kids had medium to deep baths, they put the dishwasher on every night irrespective of whether it was completely full, and the kids didn't know which button to press on the loo if they had just had a wee. Over the week that we logged the family's water use, the above behaviour resulted in an average use of 443 litres per day for the whole family ranging from 260 to 600 litres per day3.

Following that discussion they put the recommendations into practice and reduced their water consumption by almost 50%, to 227 litres a day4. Given that they were only average users in the first place, I was particularly impressed by the results and it clearly shows how effective behaviour change can be. The frustrating thing is that the programme didn't show how they did it, nor in fact did it show what they did before the changes, thus diluting an important message. The changes that made the greatest immediate reduction in water consumption were that Jamie and Marie cut their showers down to four minutes, and (in what I think is an inspired move) used the same four minute timer to fill the bath resulting in a shallow bath for the children. They washed pans by hand, thus creating more space in the dishwasher for other items and began to use the dishwasher and washing machine more efficiently. They also put signs on the loos to remind the kids which was the correct button to press after they had used it. All of this information, along with (apparently) some moments of TV gold dust (!) ended up on the cutting room floor.

Whilst behaviour change alone will not save the Kennet (which the EA has estimated requires a 30% reduction in overall abstraction, and anyway, could be solved by building a pipeline from Farmoor reservoir at a cost of £10 million), it needs to be given greater importance as part of an overall strategy to ensure our water supplies remain sufficient throughout the 21st Century, without causing stress on our natural environment.

1 Broadcast autumn 2011 and still available to view at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b013pzns
2 And is, in fact, legally entitled to abstract 13,000m3 a day
3 To see daily graphs of the family's use during the monitoring period, and more details about the changes to their water use that they made, log onto www.ech2o.co.uk
4 ranging from 125 - 310 litres/day
5 Farmoor reservoir is filled by the River Thames and has spare capacity.