The 22nd of March marks World Water Day. We all know that managing and monitoring our water use can be beneficial for economic and maintenance reasons. But, how much you know about the environmental impact of good water management might differ depending on your lifestyle, where you live and your position on climate change. 

We spoke with Ben Coles, Director of Development & Strategic Programmes at Groundwork London and Groundwork South, who manages our water management programmes, delivered in partnership with Affinity Water, Southern Water, South West Water, Thames Water and Wessex Water. 

Ben takes a deep dive into the factors that matter to everyone when it comes to water and shares some ideas of how we can wake up to better water saving, for today, tomorrow and years ahead.

Wake up to Water by Ben Coles

“It’s time to wake up to water. I don’t mean that in the literal sense.” 

Without giving it a second thought – which in itself is half the problem – the full glass of water next to the bed, the leisurely 8 minute shower, the toilet being flushed (possibly more than once), the cold tap running as teeth are cleaned, the kettle filled to the line as the half-full dishwasher is emptied. And that might be all within the space of an hour. Part of our daily routine that we simply do on autopilot, morning after morning, day after day….

Now imagine the sort of day you might be embarking upon if your shower didn’t flow, your toilet didn’t flush and spinning your taps around offered you nothing but the banging of an empty pipe. This might sound like a ridiculously inconceivable scenario to the very large majority of us in the UK, a sovereign country on the edge of the Atlantic famous for its rain (and lately it’s barely stopped raining). 

But here’s the ‘Reality Check’….we are on a collision course to living out that very day in our lifetimes.”

Reality is sinking in

“Our global climate crisis, the acceptance and manifestation of which is now almost entirely undisputed (98.7% of scientists agree human activity is causing climate change1) is also contributing to, and the result of, a significant and growing water crisis. Yet the water emergency we face, and the interconnectedness of it with the climate emergency is rarely discussed. The forecasted water supply-demand deficit in many of the UK’s water supply areas is barely known, but it draws closer year on year, precariously, as climate change, population growth, and vast demands for agricultural and industrial water conspire to deliver potentially unimaginable consequences for the future of our society. 

There are stark warnings of this scenario in Cape Town and Chennai. We all need to wake up to that reality, and now. According to many, London is now named one of the ominous Top Ten world cities that are most likely to run out of water next. Projections indicate residents of London (and large parts of the South-East) could be drawing water from standpipes by as soon as 2040.

As vital as the air that we breathe, water is the most precious thing on the planet. We cannot survive without it.”

World Water Day by Ben Coles at Groundwork London
Groundwork London Wakes Up to Water with Water Companies

“On ‘World Water Day’ we will see a lot of information about saving our most precious resource, facts about the increasing water stress we are facing and its impact around the globe. I have developed a passion for water saving, and it flows into the shared values of Groundwork London. Over a decade I have been working with water companies to co-design and deliver programmes that provide water-saving education, supported the retrofit of domestic and commercial properties with water-saving products, and discovered solutions to the finding and fixing of leaking taps, toilets and showers on a wide scale. 

Based on this experience, I’m also going to throw my two pennies worth into the mix – or let’s make it five (of my top) pennies worth of priorities that need to be the focus for water, now:”

1. Fully Smart

“Whilst they are being installed at record rates, smart meters need to be everywhere to give people the tools they need to help them better understand their consumption patterns, to pay for the water they actually consume and to more effectively identify leaks in their homes, and in wider networks.

There’s a significant shift downwards in water usage from metered customers (potentially up to a 20% reduction), and hopefully, the technology isn’t far away for water use displays that can sit alongside their energy equivalents.

Whilst water use is out of sight it will remain out of mind, undervalued and taken for granted which doesn’t encourage efficiency. More solutions need to be found for typically ‘hard to meter’ housing, such as flats. Water consumption data should be flowing as freely in every home and business as the water itself.”

2. Pricing that’s right

“Is your monthly water bill coming in less than your monthly mobile phone contract, or what you might expect to pay for a meal out for two? Does that make any sense? If we paid our water companies at the rate we’d buy 1L of bottled water from the shops, then this would be a very different story (mains water can be in the region of 1/300th the price of bottled water). 

So keeping affordability very much in mind, is it time for a sensible debate on putting a higher charge on our water to more accurately reflect its true value and importance to sustaining life on earth? It feels to me that with the huge clean and wastewater challenges (now and) ahead, this is going to be almost unavoidable. 

The question is, do we want to take small steps starting now toward change rather than delaying the inevitable and face the shock of a life-changing, bigger bill later? On the plus side, it could unblock the considerable resources and investment to provide water security and tackle our wastewater challenges, like a down payment in the investment of our children’s future (who already, let’s face it, are inheriting a sink full of environmental challenges). 

If we pay more for something, we inherently interact more carefully with it. Of course, there is a deep concern about rising prices that can affect so many people, particularly amid a cost of living crisis, that needs to be considered. Existing water company affordability tariffs are a great platform to build upon. If we were to start by introducing high water user tariffs for excessive water consumption, that would encourage behaviour change and speed up leak investigation and resolution. Working alongside these would be the lower tariffs that incentivise low water users, similar to the techniques being employed to good effect by energy companies seeking to reduce customer peak usage demand within their sector. 

In the commercial world of water, where at present it seems the more water you use the less you pay, there’s a need for a pretty rapid U-turn.”

3. Sharing ownership

“Is it our collective responsibility to all become better water company customers, and to play our part in their battle rather than putting it all on them? 

Water companies know they have serious work to do, but we can all take some ownership of the problematic horizon we look out over. By this I mean everything from reducing our water consumption demands to checking and fixing our ‘customer side’ leaks quickly, to reporting a leaking toilet in your workplace, in the gym or the pub, rather than just walking by and expecting someone else to raise the issue. 

We can all be resourceful and find solutions – consider the increasing rainfall landing on our roofs. It’s very easy to look on in shock at the footage and stories in the news about sewage outfall impacts on our river and coastal environments, but it’s also very easy to connect a water butt to your main down-pipe and run a leaky hose off of it into a bit of permeable garden space. 

As with all of our environmental challenges, every action we take counts. If your water company invites you to participate in such a scheme then embrace it and encourage your neighbours to sign up too.”

4. Education and campaigns

“We need more comprehensive water education and campaigns everywhere – in our schools, in businesses, in our homes and across our communities, including a focus on building our resilience to water shortages and extreme weather events. 

Children and young people can be a water company headache as they hit their teenage years, spending far longer than they should in the shower for example. It’s not uncommon for us to hear stories from our water-efficiency home visits of 45-minute showers going on up and down the country. Leaking toilets are also commonplace in homes (5 to 10% properties), offices and high footfall venues, with some of the very worst offenders leaking up to 8000L a day. That’s an unreal amount of wastage – enough to fill an Olympic swimming pool within a year if left unfixed. 

We see this all too frequently. Toilets need their very own ‘see it, say it, sorted’ campaign, but we need more water campaigns generally. A good place to start might be to raise awareness of where our water comes from; what happens to get it there; Education on how to live with less and where our wastewater goes is not only informationally helpful; it’s constructive. Building this better understanding is the start of a stronger relationship between people and water.”

5. Planning change now

“All new builds should come with rainwater harvesting tanks as the standard function to flush toilets and service washing machine water demands. Effective technology is there to do it! 

Grey-water recycling really needs the biggest adrenaline boost and provides, like its energy counterpart, huge and much-needed retrofit opportunities. We’ll need more plumbers, and what a career they have in front of them! 

Water use labelling on white goods and bathroom products becoming mandatory in 2025 is a positive step forward, and let’s hope this is closely followed by a splurge of water footprint data (i.e. details of water used to produce our goods and services) appearing on everything we cross paths with. Both of these initiatives will bring water into more everyday conversations.

So today, on ‘World Water Day’, I say it’s time to really wake up to water. We need to raise public awareness of our growing water crisis and days like ‘World Water Day’ should be embraced as part of that journey. For now, well done and thank you to everyone raising awareness in whatever way you’re doing it. 

I’ll also use ‘World Water Day’ to salute the hard work of thousands of brilliantly dedicated people that ensure our water arrives each day and our waste water is taken away. It’s one of those thankless tasks, but we all have a duty to try and make things easier for them – it’s going to be a tough time ahead. Let’s all wake up to water and tackle it head-on, together.”

1Myers, Krista F.; Doran, Peter T.; Cook, John; Kotcher, John E.; Myers, Teresa A. (20 October 2021). “Consensus revisited: quantifying scientific agreement on climate change and climate expertise among Earth scientists 10 years later”