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Water demand and drought: how can we reduce demand to address multiple socio-environmental crises?

Policy@Manchester

6 min read Partner content

Droughts are becoming more severe across the UK and Europe, not least as a result of climate change, and there are renewed debates about sustainability and continuation of water supplies. How people use water in their homes has consequences for water scarcity and hot, dry weather also produces patterns of water use in people’s homes and outdoor spaces that are different to those during cooler weather. Summer ‘peaks’ in water demand are not unusual as hot weather and holidays spark supermarket sales of paddling pools and gardening equipment. Water provides a vital resource to keeping cool and fresh, particularly in the context of poorly insulated homes.

Climate models predict that hot dry summers are likely to worsen, restricting supplies and driving water demand. With these changes, there is a growing need to understand how people respond to these changes and how to develop pathways towards less water intensive futures. Dr Claire Hoolohan, Dr Alison Browne and Joe Cahill from The University of Manchester propose that policy must recognise that demand and water scarcity are deeply entwined, and develop strategies to reduce demands that pre-empt drought.

As well as adapting to climate change, there is an important role for water demand management in climate change mitigation as water related emissions contribute around 6% of the UKs total greenhouse gas emissions. This is amplified in the current cost of living and energy price crises, where reducing hot water use could offer potential cost savings. When we use hot water for showers, baths, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, we use energy and produce emissions but these are also vital everyday practices. Water scarcity and rising costs of energy risk compromising wellbeing and so long-term demand management strategies are essential.

Given these increasing challenges, the UK needs methods for planning and managing demand that give better insight into different factors which affect when and how much water people use, and the diversity of use in different homes. University of Manchester researchers, alongside partners are developing tools that offer new ways of understanding the practices that drive peak water demand.

A connected approach to water management

Policy makers well-recognise the roles that water companies and the public play in producing patterns of water demand. However, the role of many other actors remain less visible. A myriad of designers, manufacturers, retailers, construction industry, plumbers and local actors, contribute to shaping water use in homes and subsequent impacts on water systems, energy demand and sustainability.

Using insights from the social sciences, this Knowledge Transfer Project helps understand ‘peak water use’ and identify potential pathways towards less water intensive ways of living. There are many ‘peaks’ that concern water demand managers – from daily and weekly coordination in water use in people’s homes, to seasonal peaks in summer months. The project began in 2020, charting the impacts of Covid-19 lockdowns on domestic demand. During this time, there were dramatic changes in everyday use, as people relocated demand from non-domestic spaces into the home.

Amongst these changes was a rise of sales of hot tubs and outdoor pools. Such purchases have become straightforward and affordable for many, with many big retailers stocking a variety of products ready for summer. More households than ever before now have incredibly water intensive products sitting in their gardens.

DEFRA (Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs) have committed to mandatory water efficiency labellings. However, these measures focus on water consumption for domestic appliances like showers, washing machines and dishwashers, neglecting luxury items like hot tubs and pools. Policymakers could extend the present focus from domestic water-using appliances (washing machines, showers, taps, toilets) to the wider range of objects and materials involved in creating demand.

Sharing responsibility for long term measures

Beyond water labelling, there is a need for more wide-ranging approach to demand management. Many companies that produce and sell products like pools or and hot tubs have net zero targets and sustainability goals. Indeed some consider the downstream impacts of other products – like food waste and single-use plastics. However, the water (and energy) demand resulting from such purchases remains beyond the scope of their action plans. Policymakers could develop mechanisms to extend producer responsibilities, and companies acknowledge the impacts their actions have on consumption.

Local and national governments need to look to the communal provisioning of public and community swimming pools, parks and other outdoor spaces. Ensuring public health facilities and community infrastructure is easily accessible and affordable provides a valuable alternative to domestic spaces to keep cool. Public provisioning of pools has become problematic since the pandemic, and 65 public pools have closed in the last 3 years despite a succession of hot summers. Investment in community spaces and infrastructure is an essential intervention for future public health and water sustainability.

Policy makers must also look at water quality and water pollution in swimming waters – working much more consistently to step up improvements in local water quality of lakes and rivers so that people can access these places to keep cool without risk to their personal health.

With the likelihood of increasingly hot, dry summers, we need better understanding of how people use water, how this could change amidst other societal developments and how policy makers can steer towards less water intensive practices. Government should be considering long-term changes in demand as part of domestic strategy to address water scarcity and avoid drought.

We need meaningful alternatives to trends that are increasingly water intensive and government departments have a role in visualising and creating these alternatives. Reactionary, short-term measures such as temporary use bans and normative messaging are insufficient at best, and at worst risk removing people’s abilities to adapt and respond to heat stress in a changing climate.

Summer outdoor water demand is but one of the trends this Knowledge Transfer Project addresses. With water industry collaborators, we also examine domestic hot water use to identify ways of managing daily, weekly and seasonal peaks in water (and energy) demand. We also investigate the various ways that hot and cold use are affected by environmental change, discourse on environmental crises, and cultural change. Overall, the project emphasises the growing need to recognise and connect the wider contexts which everyday routines are performed in. If we are to foster less-water intensive practices in households, bigger picture thinking needs to be at the forefront of policymakers minds and actions.

This research is funded by an Innovate UK Knowledge Transfer Project (KTP) that is a collaboration between The University of Manchester with Artesia. Further information can be found here.

Cahill, J., Hoolohan, C., Lawson, R., and Browne, A. L. (2021). COVID-19 and water demand: A review of literature and research evidence. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water 9(1), https://doi.org/10.1002/wat2.1570 

Policy@Manchester aims to impact lives globally, nationally and locally through influencing and challenging policymakers with robust research-informed evidence and ideas. Visit our website to find out more, and sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with our latest news.

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