lifestyle sustainability

Thirsty nation: Britain’s water problem

Britain is generally considered to be a rather wet place, with plenty of rain. That’s partly true, but some parts get more rain than others. The south of England is actually rather dry. Factor in population density, it it turns out that some places in the South East have less water per capita than Sudan or Syria.

According to the Environment Agency (pdf), water stress occurs in areas where “the current household demand for water is a high proportion of the current effective rainfall”. In other words, we use it as fast as the rain tops it up. Water use has been rising steadily in Britain, and at present we use 150 litres a day on average.

At the same time, climate predictions suggest that Britain will face drier summers in future. That combination of rising demand and falling supply could create some serious problems in the future, especially when you factor in the expected 12% population growth that’s expected in the south of England over the next two decades. Cutting our household water use down is going to be one of the priorities for England in a changing climate, and the government aims to cut average use to 130 litres a day by 2030. That’s why we have those adverts telling us to turn off the taps while we brush our teeth, or get hosepipes in the summer, or why there’s a Water Saving Week, which is this week.

150 litres seems like quite a lot to me, but with a little help from my water company, here’s how it breaks down:

  • A shower uses 7 litres a minute, and a power shower uses 15 litres a minute. A five minute shower could immediately account for half of our daily usage.
  • While we’re in the bathroom, flushing the toilet uses 9 litres, and leaving the tap running while brushing your teeth will waste 10 litres
  • Downstairs, we use 15 litres per person per day preparing food.
  • Washing up in the sink will use 10 litres, the dishwasher 22.
  • Running the washing machine can use 75 litres.
  • Using a hosepipe or sprinkler is a pretty quick way of racking up the water bills, at 16 litres a minute for a hose and 12 for a sprinkler.

You’ll be familiar with many of the different ways of saving water already. An aerating shower head is a useful gadget that we started using as part of the Green Up Luton challenge*, and we also have a four-minute shower timer. Your council or water company can provide discounted water butts if you want to start collecting rainwater for watering plants or washing your car. It only takes a few minutes to connect it up, and it’ll fill the barrel in a single night of rainfall.

*did I mention that Lou and I won the challenge? We got first prize for reducing our energy use the most over three months, and £500 off our council tax. I didn’t think we had a chance when we started, but is shows how much more there is to do once you start thinking more creatively about energy use.


  1. I saw a programme on the BBC a few months ago about saving water, and one of the people interviewed in the programme pointed out that saving water didn’t just save water – it saved energy as well, as water that comes through our taps has been purified, pumped, and – in the case of hot water – heated, first, and all of these things take energy.

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