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The bigger, wetter, picture

Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink.
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.

Looking out of my kitchen window as I write this at a rainstorm of Noah-esque proportions, I think one might be forgiven for wondering if there is such a thing as a water shortage in this country.

So I have quite a lot of sympathy with the customers of United Utilities in the north west, whose hosepipe ban this year coincided with some of the wettest months that area had seen. Add to that the fact that some of those customers had been affected by the terrible Cumbrian floods and you have to think that maybe someone from the big utilities companies is taking the you-know-what.

And yet, and yet…According to the United Nations, lack of access to a decent water supply is going to be the overwhelming problem of the 21st century. There are parts of East Anglia, for example, that receive less rain per capita, per annum than some areas of the Sahara.

The problem in the affluent western economies like ours (still affluent by world standards, despite the best efforts of Cammo, Cleggie and the Boy George last week) is less the amount of water we receive than what we do with it.

I’ve recently moved into a new house. One that has not been redecorated for a good 15 to 20 years. Which means the bathrooms are still housing lovely, group one coloured suites with mega-cisterns flushing 13 litres of perfectly good potable water every time they are flushed (family of four, that’s a lot of drinking-quality water down the pan a day). Having left a house with a perfectly good 6/3litre flushing WC, I was quite horrified when I saw just how much water we get through each day.

So I was a pretty receptive audience to the launch a couple of weeks ago of Roca’s We Are Water Foundation, which aims to raise awareness of the need to conserve water across the globe. There’s a bit more to the foundation than that of course, it is also actively funding projects which will bring water to areas of the world that have problems with access to it. Provide an African village with a decent well, for example, and you free up the girls from that village. Instead of walking four miles day to fetch drinking water, they can go to school. The better educated they are, the better able they are to help their families and communities.

What also came out from the research that the Foundation has done is that most of us are unaware of how much water we use, despite saying we want to save it. Most of us would probably put our water consumption at around 80 – 90litres a day. The truth is we’re more like 150litres, probably more. Yet the UN says that every person in the world needs around 20 to 50litres a day for their basic cooking, cleaning, hygiene and drinking needs.

Talking to KBBReview’s Andrew Davies about the subject, he reports that most retailers he speaks to say that consumers are all talk and no trousers when it comes to water saving. That we all say we want the most water-efficient products going, but when it comes to coughing up, we’ll still opt for the cheapest or prettiest machine regardless.

The trouble is, we don’t really understand how much water costs. It’s just, well, there, at the turn of a tap. How many of us are evangelical about recycling our cans and plastic milk bottles, yet think nothing of rinsing them thoroughly with drinking-quality water before putting them in the brown bin? And paying by Direct Debit as so many of us are now forced to do means we have no concept of the cost either (I think the same is true of energy consumption, too by the way, though that is changing).

The industry is full of talk about the government’s support for energy saving and the Renewable Heat Initiative and rightly so. But there is a bigger picture and being water conscious has to be part of that or we are all in a lot more trouble than we realise.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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