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Water shortage and water storage: problems and solutions

When we think of environmental issues in the UK we don’t often think of water shortages. Probably because so much of it falls out of the sky on what feels like a far-too-frequent basis.

Despite what seems like an apparent abundance of water on our islands, a combination of climate change and a rise in population are causing concerns for the future. Last year the Environment Agency raised the alarm, expressing worries about not being able to meet freshwater demand in as little as 25 years time.

If you live in the UK you’ve probably noticed the increased frequency of prolonged periods of drought over the past few years. While there’s still plenty of rain, our physical and natural infrastructure doesn’t support effective collection and distribution to support us through extended and frequent periods of drought. The changes in our climate are getting more and more obvious, and dangerous.

Combine the changes in climate with a predicted population increase of around 12million and you’ll begin to see where the concerns are coming from. Although there are regions in the UK drier than Italy, it is probably safe to say that the majority of our population aren’t too concerned about saving water. Talk to most people about water issues in the UK and flooding is likely to be a bigger concern. After all, apart from the odd hosepipe ban, we’ve never really had to worry about water shortages before.

There are solutions, of course. One is to build more reservoirs. Although this may seem like the most sensible solution, environmentally speaking they’re not the way to go. The compelling arguments against solving our water shortage problem by installing more dams and reservoirs comes down to the multiple negative feedback loops they create.

Reservoirs and dams impact our ecosystem in multiple ways. The flow of river species is significantly impacted as they are prevented from moving either down, or upstream. When water is released from dams, the lack of sediment means it flows faster, increasing erosion of river beds. The deeper river beds mean that the water stored in the ground becomes surface water, draining directly into the sea (the video below explains this process well). In addition, the large surface areas of these storage solutions encourage water evaporation, further impacting the climate and biodiversity in local areas.

Video: Youtube Little River Research & Design

These feats of engineering also impact downstream floodplains and wetlands which depend on the natural flow of water from rivers and streams, eventually impacting our woodlands, which are vital to rebalancing our climate. At the same time, aerobic bacteria found in the bottom of reservoirs breaks down, producing carbon dioxide and methane, an issue that is exacerbated as the climate warms.

The urgency of the problem means that we are likely to see more reservoirs being built over the next number of years but we need to focus on creating long term solutions that create positive feedback loops.

There are plenty of solutions that we can implement at home. Some solutions require a simple change of habit, while others will require us to modify our homes and integrate water systems that reduce waste and maximise yield.

Our roofs provide a huge surface area we can use to catch water for use in our homes. If you’ve got any outbuildings this can add up to a significant amount. At home we calculated that with the correct storage, we could collect a huge 386,000 litres per year from a total roof surface area of 343m2.

If you’re living in an apartment block there’s still plenty of things that you can do to save water. From installing aerators in your tap, to filling up your watering can while waiting for the taps to run warm, washing in bulk and using the water from your dishes to water your plants.

One of the best things we can do to start saving water, is to become more aware of our water usage. Next time you’re waiting for your shower to get hot, observe how many minutes it takes and multiply this by the flow rate (usually between 6-13 litres per minute). Simply observing water use habits and becoming more aware of how much we are using will help us to reduce our consumption and wastage.

To find out how much water you could collect from your roof, click here.

If you're interested in learning more about how to apply permaculture design skills to your own site, check out our new online course, Design Your Site with Permaculture.

Tags: permaculture, water, climate change, water saving, water harvesting, site design, analysis, resivoir, flooding, water storage, reservoir, dam, river