Rethinking Water Services: drinking in the ‘unthinkable’

Awaking at my usual time this morning, within one hour I had used water provided by my local water company to:

  • Have a shower
  • Flush the loo
  • Make coffee
  • Water some houseplants
  • Run the clothes washer

Since it has not rained for some time, later I will probably put a garden sprinkler on for a bit. That tots up to about 100 litres used by midday today used for perfectly normal, even mundane uses.

Most people in the UK do something very similar every day of their lives. And most of us rarely stop to consider the journey (from nature through pipeline treatment plant through pipeline to our homes) that that water has made to reach our homes and gardens. Nor do we reflect deeply on the fact that perhaps 90% of everyday water use is fleeting, being used in the space of seconds or minutes and then being taken away by the sewer system. Unlike food and energy which we bring into our homes to consume, after which they cannot be used again, water is as much part of a metabolic ‘flow of processes’ as anything. Water used for washing is immediately ‘contaminated’ with soaps to perform cleaning functions (our bodies, our dishes, our clothes, our cars, etc.) and then drained away. Water used on our gardens and ingested directly into our bodies stays around a little longer, but nevertheless is still a dynamic part of a metabolic process. It never really stops moving; when it moves away it is usually encumbered with things that we don’t want only to be treated and then returned to nature.

The other day I was asked what I thought water services might look like in 2050. I made two suggestions, one fairly conventional and the other perhaps not.

Pondering the above, I suggested that by 2050 UK water users might be to some extent self-supplying their own water, ‘harvested’ from their rooftops. In most parts of the UK, it is perfectly possible to provide all your water needs just from the water that runs off your roof. If you are fortunate enough to live in a two story house and you can intercept that water at or near the roofline, you will even have gravity on your side when you later want to use that collected rainwater. The catch of course is that you will also need some way of ensuring that the water you collect is safe to use, not contaminated by any of the dozens of things that can make you ill or impair that water’s performance for other functions. Even so, there are now relatively cheap technologies for managing water quality in small scale applications such as individual households. So then, in principle, you could become your own water supply company. It is even possible, though much trickier, to manage one’s own wastewater, providing you have a sufficiently large plot of land and not a little know how.

The above possibility, the possibility that it may not be necessary to wholly depend on water supply piped often from considerable distances (if you live in the Birmingham area, your water may well be coming from West Wales, 90 miles away!) raises another question. How did we come to use the same water, treated to the high standard necessary for drinking, for lower standard water uses such as loo flushing and garden watering? Might it be that by 2050 most UK homes, implementing the above technologies, find themselves able to provide most of their own water supply, purchasing piped water only for drinking and cooking (that would be about 10 litres per person per day). Or, might it be that by 2050 UK water companies no longer guarantee that the water they supply is drinking standard, charging less for this lower standard water but in effect making householders responsible for procuring their drinking water in some other way?

The person who asked me the question that sparked the above ruminations raised her eyebrows and said that such possibilities, and especially the second one, were “unthinkable”. I responded that both suggestions are already realities in different parts of the world. In cities in arid and semi-arid regions domestic water collection (to catch fleeting seasonal rains) has been around for years and even decades. Throughout much of urban Spain and southern Italy, for example, rooftop water tanks, often paired with passive solar water heating systems, are commonplace. And even in some mega cities piped water supply is not produced to drinking quality. In Beijing, China, for example, 20 million people are supplied with water that is expressly for everything except drinking – what we call ‘non-potable uses’. Therefore it is common in Beijing homes either to treat the piped water with some sort of filter (GAC filters, just like what aquarists use in their fish tanks, are common) or to purchase 50 litre bottles of water specifically for drinking – not unlike the water coolers in some workplaces.

What then might the UK water sector look like in 2050 if some mix of the above possibilities were to ‘come to Britain’ in any sizable way? That, I’m afraid, is a question for another day. But with pressures of population change, climate change and an ageing infrastructure it would be as well for thought leaders in the UK water sector to start ‘thinking the unthinkable.’