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Bricks & Water: an increasingly valuable role for water efficiency?

12 September 2019

During a period of significant housing growth, household water efficiency will form an important component in the government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Baroness McIntosh of Pickering explains why and how.

Bricks & Water: an increasingly valuable role for water efficiency?
Do we fully recognise all the benefits of water efficiency?

The 1.5 million new homes planned by 2022 need to be resilient to a changing climate and to remain habitable beyond the end of this century. This is a considerable challenge, but there are some emerging benefits – from water efficiency, and collaboration between communities and business – that could be exploited far more, with multiple benefits.

The wide impacts of unwelcome water

Many communities that are affected by drought in the summer can also be affected by too much water at other times of year.

1.8 million people in the UK are currently at significant risk of flooding from surface water, rivers, or the sea. This number will rise to 2.5 million by 2080 under a 2°C warming scenario, or 3.5 million under a 4°C warming scenario.

It won't be possible to build defence schemes to protect all of these communities, and so we need to upgrade our existing housing stock to be more resistant and resilient to flood events.

However, the impacts from flooding can go far beyond the individual: for every one person that's flooded, another 16 will have their lives affected by things like transport disruption, telecoms interruption and loss of power.As we recognise these wider impacts, the case for effective action becomes more compelling.

The climate emergency as an opportunity for planning reform

The declaration of a climate emergency by parliament is welcome and we should use this as a catalyst to introduce a tougher and simpler planning framework to deliver new homes that are sustainable and resilient to a changing climate.

The government’s ambitious programme of housebuilding presents us with a unique opportunity to incorporate water efficiency, carbon neutrality and flood resilience into the homes of the future.

Doing this now will be far less costly and challenging than retrofitting these measures at a later date. Incorporating water efficient fixtures and fittings into our existing homes will be even more effective if accompanied by consumer education.

Multiple benefits of water efficiency include emissions reduction

Water efficiency for current and new homes is crucial. Events in Cape Town last year, and currently in Chennai, India, are a reminder that we cannot take our water supply for granted.

Indeed, London receives less rain on average than Rome, Istanbul or Dallas. A combination of climate change and increased development in the south east will result in water shortages, with an estimated 4 billion litres of extra water required by 2050.

We need to drive down consumption to no more than 100 litres per person per day, through a combination of behaviour change and technology solutions (water recycling, efficient fixtures and fittings), which thankfully already exist. These are increasingly recognised drivers of water efficiency.

However, the emissions reduction benefits of water efficiency are frequently overlooked. Even though we heat 60% of the water that we use within our homes, the link between usage and energy consumption isn't well understood by consumers. So water efficiency could be another tool to add to the UK’s emissions reduction activities.

Community and business acting together

The greatest successes are made when regulators, water companies and consumers work together.

Collaborative planning and integration of water resilience into wider engineering projects can bring multiple gains, such as the recreational benefits to society associated with the creation of green spaces for sustainable drainage, or the natural flood defences created by schemes like the Pickering ‘Slow the Flow’ project.

It's really encouraging to hear about the increasing efforts business is making in stepping up to this challenge.

Business in the Community’s Water Resilient Places scheme is a great example of businesses working with planners and water companies to ensure that communities are based in places that use water sustainably, with UN Sustainable Development Goals in mind.

The challenges of providing flood resistant and resilient homes and communities remains considerable, but the benefits of emissions reduction and collaboration between communities and business could be a significant part of the step-change we need. I look forward to increasing appetite for both in the months and years ahead.

State of the Nation 2019: Connecting infrastructure with housing

ICE’s 2019 State of the Nation report sets out a series of interventions for better integrating the planning and delivery of housing and infrastructure.

Read the policy paper

  • Baroness McIntosh of Pickering, co-Chair of the Westminster Sustainable Business Forum’s Bricks & Water inquiry