Hose bans, water shutters and beavers: what can we do to fight the UK drought? | Drought

Written by Javed Iqbal

Many parts of southern England and Wales are facing drought conditions and preparing for relief measures, yet the country is getting more annual rainfall than anywhere on the European continent.

The long spells of drizzle Britain is known for means we take water for granted in a way that some warmer countries don’t. But as the climate warms and we become drier, this will no longer be possible. So how did we get here and what can politicians, businesses and individuals do to mitigate the drought?

Stop leaks

Before we tell you not to run the faucet while brushing your teeth and start taking two-minute showers, it’s important to note that water companies are letting an astonishing amount of water leak through their creaky, old infrastructure. Recent analysis by the Times found water companies are wasting up to a quarter of their supply in leaks. Campaigners claim that since privatisation, a lot of money has gone to shareholders in water companies instead of improving infrastructure. Moreover, the problem has persisted for so long that the leaks have become increasingly expensive and complicated to fix.

The industry says it is trying to make a change. Stuart Colville, director of policy at the trade body Water UK, said: “[Water] Companies are committed to halving leakage by 2050 – based on recent data showing some of the lowest levels of leakage ever – and to supporting customers to do their part.”

Flowers are watered with a garden hose
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, has been campaigning to persuade people to stop using high-quality tap water to do things like water their gardens. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA

Stop personal waste

That said, the British use a lot of water. The average citizen uses significantly more than most Europeans – usually around 150 liters per day per person. person, compared to 128 in France, 130 in Spain and 122 in Poland. Only three countries spend more per per capita: Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, which top the table with more than 200 liters per day.

Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, has campaigned to persuade people to stop using high-quality tap water to do things like wash their cars and water their gardens. Instead, he says people should get water shutters and the government should launch a public awareness campaign to reduce consumption.

He says: “We have stubbornly high per capita consumption, which is one of the highest rates in Europe, and it’s not going down. The government has set targets to bring it down and they haven’t outlined how they’re going to do so yet. We need fundamental behavioral changes and new houses should be built to be water efficient as well as energy efficient.”

Ofwat, the water regulator, suggests people use washing-up bowls instead of constantly running the tap, wait for a full load before washing and water plants with waste water.

Release the beavers

Part of the problem in the UK is that we have historically drained our fairly moist soil to improve the prospects for agriculture and infrastructure. We have also straightened our rivers and stopped flooding around them – removing wetlands – which is not only terrible for nature, but quickly shuts off water downstream, causing floods when it rains heavily and droughts when it doesn’t .

A beaver swims in a river.
The Beaver Trust is urging the government to reintroduce beavers to rivers ‘as part of a low-cost, restorative, solutions-based approach to mitigating the devastating effects of drought and wildfire’. Photo: Adrian Langdon/Cornwall Wildlife Trust/PA

A furry rodent could hold the answer; beavers build dams, create wetlands and slow the flow of rivers and store water in the landscape. There are some attempts with attached releases in England, as well as some free-ranging beavers in Scotland and parts of southern England. Campaigners want the government to allow the release of the enterprising animals nationwide.

A spokesperson for the Beaver Trust explains: “We urge the Government to prioritize water security and to accelerate the reintroduction of beavers into river basins as part of a low-cost, restorative, solutions-based approach to mitigating the devastating effects of drought and bushfire.”

Well, they would say so. But one farmer, Chris Jones, has found that having beavers on his land in Cornwall has protected him from the worst of the recent drought.

He tells us, “What the beavers have done is they’ve built a whole series of dams, and these all store water. They help keep the land adjacent to the stream moist and drought-resistant.

“The beavers have reconnected the creek to the floodplain, so you have all these little streams crossing the land where there was no water before. Now ponds are being built behind the dams and building up water reserves in the country.”


Farm more sensibly

British agriculture is used to using water in an unsustainable way, extracting water from rare chalk streams to irrigate crops and growing many water-intensive crops in the driest parts of the country – for example potatoes, which are very thirsty plants, in East Anglia.

Farmers could be encouraged to create reservoirs on their land so they can farm without having to irrigate as much. They could even sell their water to water companies in times of drought. We grow food, so why not water too? Considering what we grow and where we grow it can also help us use water more efficiently in the future.

Kelly Hewson-Fisher, national water specialist for the National Farmers’ Union, said: “The prolonged dry weather we have experienced so far in 2022 highlights the urgent need for the Government and its agencies to work with the agricultural and horticultural sector to better plan and manage the country’s water resources to help build resilience and provide investment opportunities for irrigation equipment and to build more on-farm reservoirs. In addition, approaches to flood and drought risk management need to be “unified”, to be more innovative and more ambitious. This would provide farmers access to a safe supply of water for food.”

Get the government to act

New legislation is needed to ensure that the water companies clean up and that water is used in a more sensible way throughout the country. Water UK has proposed a new Rivers Act to hold companies legally accountable for the commitments made in the 25-year environmental plan. This would legislate on water wastage and ensure that rivers do not dry up.

NGOs, including the Rivers Trust, believe the government should campaign more to get people to reduce their water use. It is also hoped that the incoming government’s land use strategy will take water into account and suggest that thirsty crops are not grown in areas where, for example, doesn’t rain much.

The government could also legislate to make homes more water efficient and set strong targets for new developments.

A dripping faucet that is turned off helps, but does not solve the systemic problems that cause drought. Perhaps the latest heatwave will give politicians food for thought – ultimately it will be their decisions that will determine whether Britain can weather the next hot, dry summer.

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Javed Iqbal

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