Can we reduce water demand to 80 litres a day? And what can the government do to support it?
Today’s building standards are insufficient to mitigate climate change or manage water scarcity. In order to comply with existing building regulations, a property’s water use must not exceed 125 litres per person per day.
In water-stressed areas, local authorities can set a lower target, 110 litres per day. Defra are asking whether these targets could be more ambitious. We argue that they can, and propose Defra consider a target of 80 litres per day, with discretion to apply for a lower standard not to exceed 100 litres per day.
The government’s role is to incentivise action to respond to challenges facing the UK. The Environment Agency has repeatedly shown there to be considerable pressure on water resources. Few regions have additional year-round capacity available and, unless demand is reduced, many will face significant water deficits by 2050. Despite existing building standards, reducing water demand proves difficult, signalling that deeper and more extensive action is required.
Additionally, existing targets were established in the context of the UK’s Climate Change Act, which called for an 80% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, but today the government strives towards net zero, in line with the Paris Agreement. This change in emphasis necessitates more ambitious action on climate change in every aspect of everyday life, including water, which is the UK’s fourth most energy-intensive sector and a significant contributor to residential energy demand.
Research shows that building standards of 105 litres per day is both achievable and cost-effective in new-build homes. The target must be more stringent still if it is to encourage innovation, and the government must also consider how to reduce demand in existing buildings.
How do building standards relate to water use?
Ambitious water efficiency standards in buildings are commendable, however it is not buildings that use water but the people who live in them. There is a risk that in pursuing building standards, discussions regarding how water is used in homes are overlooked.
Presently, a micro-component approach is used to estimate water demand; calculating the number of appliances, flow rate and estimating the frequency and duration of their use based on averages. This does little to capture the range of actual water use associated with personal practices, nor does it provide policymakers with the understanding needed to enable demand reduction.
While for many people showering once daily is normal, many people shower much more and much less frequently and there is great variation in the duration of a shower. This makes it difficult to estimate how much water will be used once a home is occupied, but more importantly, tells us nothing about why people use water; whether people shower simply to get clean, or for other reasons such as caring for aching bodies or getting ready for the day ahead.
Without this understanding, it is difficult to disconnect water from the services it provides, and hard to imagine alternatives. Instead, policy and industry attention has become fixated on micro-components: taps, showers, washing machines and toilets. It is unsurprising that water efficiency labelling is prominent in Defra’s consultation. Though labelling could valuably be used to regulate the manufacture and retail of appliances, relying on consumers to make water-efficient choices is presumptuous and fails to acknowledge the wider social and infrastructural developments in which everyday demand is entrenched.
Ultimately, it is not only homes and appliances that need to change, but everyday routines and the wider infrastructural and social developments that sustain them. In order for the government to enable these broader changes, there is a need for better methods to understand water demand, and a broader set of indicators to monitor change.
There are existing strategies that aim to reconfigure routines by engaging in the design and use of our homes, such as water-sensitive garden, kitchen and bathroom design.
Water-sensitive gardens, such as the RHS’s Gardening for a Changing Climate, are those planted in a way that is attuned to the UK’s seasonal weather patterns. They enable people to enjoy garden spaces without the water-intensive upkeep of a traditional lawn garden by incorporating other aspects such as social spaces and play spaces.
Water-sensitive kitchens and bathrooms go beyond efficiency to consider the material contents of these rooms and how they are used. In a water-sensitive bathroom, the shower might be replaced by a splash wash or a tilting bathtub, and the toilet fitted with a sink-to-cistern connection or an air-flushing unit.
A realistic government objective would be to support the normalisation and popularisation of these design practices by engaging with manufacturers, designers, home improvement retailers and the media.
There are other ways that the government might encourage a greater range of actors to participate in demand management to enhance the depth of change achieved and the speed at which change is seen. Engaging with the hair and beauty industry could enable the normalisation of dry-shampoos and waterless personal care regimes. The government could also incentivise employers to evaluate workplace dress codes to reduce the need for personal laundry or establish workplace laundry programmes to benefit from efficient commercial washing machines, including new waterless machines.
These wider initiatives require diverse partnerships and close collaborative relationships; however given the possibility of such initiatives in achieving water efficiency at scale, they should be pursued. The government has an important role in incentivising these forms of collective action. By framing personal water usage in a more holistic way, the UK government can make a big splash in order to safeguard our future supply and demand for personal water.
Claire Hoolohan is a Presidential Research Fellow at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at The University of Manchester. She is a social scientist working with social practice theories in the field of sustainable production and consumption. Her research explores the social dimensions of global challenges such as climate change adaptation and mitigation, low-carbon food and water use.
Alison Browne is a Senior Lecturer in Human Geography and the Sustainable Consumption Institute at The University of Manchester. Alison works on the social, performative and material dynamics of everyday life related to water, energy, waste, and food. In a mixed methodological and transdisciplinary way, she plays with ideas of how such everyday practices come to be disrupted, changed and governed in the context of climate and global environmental change.
This blog originally appeared on Manchester Policy Blogs.