I am Arup’s global skills leader for...
We all need water to survive. But if we’re to safeguard this vital resource, we need to value it more – and not just in financial terms.
Water is crucial not just because we need to drink it but because it’s intrinsically linked to everything from food security to the energy we use. It takes water to grow food. And it takes water to produce energy (one of the single biggest users of water). The environmental systems within which we live also are dependent on water.
Many areas of the world are already water stressed and with climate change threatening more extreme weather events from floods to droughts, water is set to become increasingly scarce – with knock-on impacts for both the environment and us. Although that should focus our minds on its value, it’s something that I believe is underestimated.
The way we value water is reflected in the green building certification schemes for scoring new developments which are heavily weighted towards energy efficiency. In the UK, BREEAM puts a weighting of just 2.5% on water efficiency while the international scheme from the US, LEED, gives it a 5% weighting of the overall credits available.
In areas where water is scarce, BREEAM or LEED do not provide enough incentive to encourage sustainable water management. This is a missed opportunity because it’s vital we start using water more efficiently – something that will take a mixture of technological solutions and behaviour change.
It’s been proven that metering and pricing can change behaviour, but how do you ensure people with low incomes still have access to essential water supplies? For example, South Africa has a policy of free basic services that includes water supply, where up to 6 cubic metrics of water per month are free and the rest is charged on a tiered tariff. Most municipalities provide a 'free basic water' tariff to everyone, although they can choose to provide it only to the poor. The cost of this policy represents a significant percentage of GDP.
Other answers may come from countries that are already dealing with water stress. In Australia, the Water Efficiency Labelling and Standards (WELS) scheme promotes the issue and helps people choose products that use less water.
But it’s not just about the cost of water at the tap. In countries such as the UK, the cost of abstracting water from the environment is very low. How would increases in the cost of water influence farming and irrigation practices as well as UK performance on leakage?
It’s a complex issue and one I believe deserves more attention. But what do you think? Have you seen an effective approach to sustainable water management near you?