England faces ‘jaws of death’ in water crisis

Water, water everywhere: Cutting usage by 40 litres a day would be easy for most people.

Today is World Water Day. The head of England’s Environment Agency says we are set to run out of water in 25 years. Wasting it must become as wrong “as blowing smoke in the face of a baby”.

Think of something you would never dream of doing. Throwing plastic bags into the sea, for example. Or puffing cigarettes around a baby. Now, James Bevan wants to add another idea to the list of shame: wasting water.

Bevan is the chief executive of England’s Environment Agency. This week he made a dramatic speech warning that the country could reach the “jaws of death” in just 20 to 25 years. This is the point at which “we will not have enough water to supply our needs.”

He blamed climate change and population growth for the looming crisis. By 2040, more than half of England’s summers will be hotter than the 2003 heatwave. This could leave rivers with 50-80% less water.

Meanwhile, the UK’s population is expected to rise to 73 million around the same time (up from 67 million now).

About a third of England’s water is currently wasted or lost through leaks. Bevan has called on water companies to reduce their pipe leakage by half.

However, “we all need to use less water and use it more efficiently,” he said. The average person uses around 140 litres of water per day — he wants this cut to 100.

His tips included turning off the tap as you brush your teeth; taking short showers; and not watering the lawn. (“It will survive without you. It’s not rocket science.”)

He also pushed for new reservoirs, more desalination plants (which turn seawater into drinking water) and more water sharing between different areas of the country.

Last year, Cape Town managed to avoid becoming the first city in the world to run out of water. After three years of drought, South Africa’s government warned that “Day Zero” (the day the city’s water supplies would go dry) was approaching.

But residents quickly adapted, reducing their use to 50 litres a day. They took 90-second showers, recycled washing machine water and used hand sanitiser to keep hands clean. Dirty cars and brown lawns became a source of pride. The crisis was (at least temporarily) averted. “We’ll never, ever, ever take water for granted again,” said one resident.

Troubled waters

What is the best way to change behaviour? Cape Town is proof that social pressure — and a sense of urgency — can be very effective. Can you imagine a day when taking a long shower is considered as wrong as blowing smoke at babies? What would have to happen in order to reach that point?

Or do governments need to get involved? Cape Town also fined the households that were using too much water, or cut off their supply altogether. Could the British government start rationing water, as they did with food during the Second World War? In short: should people be trusted to use resources responsibly — or do they need regulating from the outside?

You Decide

  1. Will you start using less water after reading this article?
  2. What is the best way to make wasting water “socially unacceptable”?

Activities

  1. Look at the statistics about average household water use in the graphic at the top of this article. What percentage of the total water consumption is used in each area? (For example — what percentage of water is used in the bathroom, and so on?)
  2. Design an advertising campaign which encourages people to use less water. Before you start, think about other campaigns you might have seen which try to change behaviour (such as anti-smoking ads). What made them effective, or not effective?

Some People Say...

“No water, no life. No blue, no green. No ocean, no us.”

Sylvia Earle

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
According to Water UK (the body which represents the UK’s water companies), a third of the water in England and Wales comes from underground sources, called aquifers. In Northern Ireland it is 6% and in Scotland, 3%. The rest comes from surface water such as lakes, rivers and reservoirs. It is then cleaned and piped to your house. Wastewater is cleaned and recycled or returned to rivers and the sea.
What do we not know?
What will happen if natural sources (such as rivers) dry up as climate change gets worse. Last year, the European Commission predicted a rise in “water wars” in areas where water may be particularly scarce — including northern Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and parts of North America.

Word Watch

Environment Agency
The government body in charge of protecting England’s environment. (Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all look after their own environmental issues.)
Jaws of death
This is not just a dramatic turn of phrase; it refers to a graph which shows England’s demand for water going up, while its available supply goes down. The point at which the lines intersect is the point at which there is no longer enough water for everyone. This is why it is called the “jaws of death”.
2003 heatwave
A deadly European heatwave which killed more than 20,000 people in August 2003. According to the Met Office, it was “thought to be the warmest for up to 500 years.”
73 million
According to predictions by the Office for National Statistics.
Reservoirs
Man-made lakes used for water supply.
Cape Town
In October 2017, the South African government warned that Day Zero was coming the following March. However, that date has now been pushed back to some time this year or next. In December, Cape Town relaxed the restrictions on water use, describing 2019 as a “recovery year”.

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