Squeezed between declining rainfall and a growing population, water supply is a growing environmental challenge. Stuart Watson examines how departments can increase their water-efficiency before supplies dry up
It is a measure of the uncharacteristic dryness of Britain’s climate in recent years that despite April’s torrential rainfall, some areas still remain in drought. Parts of the East and South-East of England have hosepipe bans in place, and more supply problems are expected in the coming years.
The weather conditions have focused the minds of administrators on the need to conserve water, with several civil service organisations already taking steps to reduce their consumption. More are likely to follow as they attempt to comply with the February 2011 Greening Government commitment, which calls on departments to reduce water consumption from a 2009-10 baseline and report on office water use against best practice benchmarks.
“There will be increasing water scarcity because the population is growing and there may be the effects of climate change on top of that,” predicts Paul Bates, Professor of Hydrology at the University of Bristol. “Unless we become more water-efficient, supplies will come under increasing stress.”
In a supporting document to the Water for Life white paper, published in December, the Environment Agency forecast that the population of England and Wales will grow by 9.6m people by the 2030s, with numbers growing by up to 40 per cent in some of the areas already struggling to cope with demand for water.
Meanwhilem climate change projections suggest that hotter and drier summers will lead to droughts becoming more frequent. The problem may not be limited to the South-East and East, with many of the scenarios considered by the Environment Agency suggesting that Wales, the South-West and northern England are likely to see significant water shortages in the future.
As well as taking measures to improve infrastructure and maintain supply, the water industry is working to manage demand, says Lesley Tait, water resources sustainability manager at Thames Water. Each supplier has a leakage reduction target, and the introduction of more meters into homes is seen as a key tool to encourage behavioural change. Almost all businesses and public sector organisations are already metered, providing an existing incentive for them to become more efficient: “Start by trying to understand your consumption. Compare your water use to other buildings and types of occupation,” suggests Tait.
Investing in water efficiency can help to save departments money, claims Nicci Russell, policy director at Waterwise. The not-for-profit company was set up by the water industry to promote efficiency, and offers consultancy services as well as running the UK Water Efficiency Awards in conjunction with the Environment Agency. “You can save 20-25 per cent on your water bill, and the investment pays back quite quickly because it’s cheap to do,” she says.
Simon Dawes, head of internal environmental management at the Environment Agency, cites the example of its office building in Hatfield, where an investment of £15,000 in water saving equipment has led to savings of £4,500 a year – these improvements are paying for themselves over little more than three years. The works were part of a wider programme which seeks to demonstrate what can be achieved by reducing water use across the agency’s office estate by 25 per cent by 2015.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has recently completed a programme of installing automatic meter reading devices across its estate, which will log 95 per cent of its water consumption at half-hourly intervals. “It is one of the most important parts of what we are doing to save water,” says Marie Beech, sustainability manager at Defra estates. Using the data, she explains, “you can focus where you put your improvement programmes.” Such devices also provide an early warning of leaks by alerting facilities managers when there is an unusual increase in water use.
One of the simplest and cheapest methods of reducing water use is to take measures to lower ‘domestic’ consumption within office buildings. Installing waterless urinals, dual-flush toilets, spray tap heads and improved shower heads can quickly make a difference. Dawes says the Environment Agency frequently pays for such improvements through its buildings maintenance budgets, piggy-backing plumbing repair work.
Rainwater harvesting can also lead to savings. The Environment Agency’s new HQ in Bristol collects rainwater from its roof into a 30,000-litre tank that is then used to flush the building’s toilets, reducing water usage by around half. Defra has also installed rainwater tanks in five buildings. Dawes admits that such a solution is not always viable, however. “With a new development it is straightforward, but it can be expensive when you are digging big holes for a tank in an existing building,” he says. Grey-water recycling, where water poured down sinks is used to flush toilets is another option – although Tait says the measures required to prevent potential contamination of drinking water can make it a difficult technique to apply in smaller schemes.
Meanwhile, the use of sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) is becoming more widespread. SUDS re-route rainwater run-off so that it is collected or drains away rather than discharging through pipes into rivers and increasing flood risk. At the Environment Agency’s building in Warrington, rainwater seeps through a permeable car park surface and is then re-used for toilet-flushing.
Taken on their own, such measures appear to be small beer, but across a huge estate like the Ministry of Defence’s the savings can be significant. Aquatrine, which provides water services to the Ministry of Defence under a PFI contract, is about to embark on a project to reduce consumption at its larger sites – including army and air bases. “We could easily achieve a saving [in water use] of 25 per cent on a typical site, probably more at some locations,” says Brian Hooper, a technical advisor at Waterwise, which has acted as a consultant on the project.
Constructing an argument for investment in water-saving measures can be difficult, however. “Because of the lower cost of water compared to energy, it is harder to make the business case in terms of payback. We know we need to do something, but at the moment water doesn’t have the leverage that carbon does,” says Beech.
Dawes argues that for simpler measures such as improving washrooms, which have a payback period of three or four years, the business case is fairly straightforward. Meanwhile, awareness of the problem of water scarcity is growing.
“Energy can take the focus sometimes,” he says, “but because of events this year the preciousness of water has been highlighted.”