WHERE IS WATER IN THE CLIMATE CHANGE DEBATE?
Climate change and water have a unique relationship. Water is the medium through which climate change is felt by human and animal populations. From those forced to abandon their houses due to flooding, to the shoals of fish left at the bottom of dry river beds, water is how we will experience climate change on a physical level. So why is it missing from the climate rhetoric?
I loved attending the climate strike in Westminster in September. It was a huge day and a fantastic turn out for the planet and for the movement. Although small groups of people had been campaigning on environmental issues since the 70s, climate we still a niche area when I studied it at university a few years ago. So to see support in those numbers was phenomenal and a day I didn’t think we would ever see. We hit the mainstream.
In the days and weeks that followed the protest, extinction rebellion continued to maintain momentum and climate was still in the news but I noticed that repeatedly water was missing from the conversation. Yes, we know that sea levels are rising, but where is the debate on fresh water and drinking water? Mains water supply is crucial for our everyday lives, but water resources are becoming increasingly stretched and are hugely impacted by climate change. I’ll explain why...
People in the UK use an average of 143 liters of water a day (1), each. This is going up, as people use more and the population increases. All this water comes from our environment, directly out of the rivers and reservoirs in our local area. Taking too much water out of the rivers directly impacts fish, wildlife and river levels, sometimes very negatively. Chalk streams, a special alkali type of freshwater river, are especially impacted. England has 85 percent of the world’s chalk streams (2) and these unique ecosystems are struggling because they don’t have enough water in them.
Water treatment (the process of turning river water into perfectly clean and safe drinking water) is hugely chemical and carbon intensive. Huge treatment works (like big water factories) add thousands of tonnes of chemicals to the water to ensure it is some of the best quality drinking water in the world but these processes use a lot of energy too. It is then pumped around the country using more energy to get to us. Then when we get it in our homes we use more energy to heat it up for our baths and showers. Water accounts for about 6% of the UK’s carbon emissions (3). So water and energy are intrinsically linked, using less water will reduce your carbon footprint.
As climate change takes hold of our weather, summers (and winters) will become drier and rainfall will decrease in some areas. Water companies will be stretched to meet the demand for water (4), especially in the summer where demand soars at the worst possible time for the supplier and the environment. The Environment Agency announced an official drought in the South East of the country a few weeks ago (October 2019) because of persistent low groundwater levels and river flows over the last few years (5). Climate change will continue to make this situation worse in the future and cause increased threat to our public water supply.
There is amazing work going on behind the scenes to protect our water resources and ensure consistent drinking supply. But freshwater and water efficiency need a “plastic straws” moment, where the problem crystallises for the media and public . People have a direct relationship and emotional attachment to the value of water, so let’s use that to push for more protection of our environment in policy and business. I want to see the climate movement working with water companies and politicians, to capitalise on the value people see in water to galvanise public support for the work being done to protect it. This in conjunction with taking daily steps to reduce our personal water usage, just like thousands across the UK are doing already with plastic. The UK’s water resources need us to speak out for them, but maybe what we don’t realise yet is that we need the narrative of water to take the climate movement to the next level.
This blog post was contributed by Lydia Makin. Lydia is the policy and Project Manager at not for profit Waterwise, funded by UK Water Companies and other environmental organisations. Waterwise’s aim is to reduce water use and create a water efficient UK.
Follow Waterwise on Twitter : @waterwise
(1) Discover Water (2019) https://discoverwater.co.uk/amount-we-use
(2) Chalk Streams in Crisis A call for drought action now (2019) Martin Salter & Stuart Singleton-White https://www.theriverstrust.org/media/2019/06/Chalk-streams-dossier_June-2019_FINAL_FINAL-1.pdf
(3) Net Zero. The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming (2019) Committee on Climate Change https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/net-zero-the-uks-contribution-to-stopping-global-warming/
(4) James Bevan’s Jaws of Death Speech (2019) https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/escaping-the-jaws-of-death-ensuring-enough-water-in-2050
(5) EA Drought Announcement (2019) https://environmentagency.blog.gov.uk/2019/10/01/environmental-drought-in-hertfordshire-and-north-london/