Excess water use can cause significant environmental damage. We need more housing, but we must use less water. How can we square the circle?

Water neutrality

Water neutrality is when ‘the use of water in the supply area before the development is the same or lower after the development is in place.’ Natural England

Water neutrality is commonly achieved using a hierarchy of the following:

Reduce water use

  • Efficient fittings in new developments such as aerated showers, restricted flow taps, hosepipe flow restrictors and economy flush toilets.
  • Behavioral change and increased awareness of reducing water use through education in local schools, promotional campaigns, tariff changes and installation of water meters.

Re-use water

  • Installation of water re-use facilities in new developments. These facilities could include rainwater and greywater harvesting systems for private dwellings as well as larger scale systems for commercial premises.
  • The use of water butts in private gardens, encouraging the re-use of water on a small scale and behavioral change as identified above.

Offset water use

  • The least effective option, to be considered only as a supplement to reducing and re-using water measures.
  • Offsetting can include retrofitting of existing buildings within the area and contributing to wider schemes to reduce water use in existing developments.

Reaching the limit in Sussex

Measures such as installing fittings with restricted flow rates and providing leaflets for new home owners seem simple to implement, but they don’t go far enough.

The Sussex North Water Supply Zone has reached the limit for water abstraction.

As part of Horsham District Council’s Habitats Regulation Assessment for their new local plan, they completed an Appropriate Assessment which identified the likely impact of planned development on the water resources of the Arun Valley Special Area of Conservation (SAC), Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site.

The consequence of this was that Natural England placed an embargo on all planning permission until a collective water neutrality strategy can be implemented.

Any critical development which cannot wait for the strategy needs to demonstrate complete water neutrality in order to gain planning permission. This will take a bit more investment than installing a water butt.

And the strategy itself won’t be simple. Completing a housing development, without increasing the amount of water extracted from the ground sounds virtually impossible. Not only is water consumed during the construction process, residents will also consume water when the housing is complete.

Water neutrality cannot be achieved without reducing the consumption of existing developments – offsetting.

What will drive behaviour change?

This is the six-million-dollar question, to which there is currently no answer.

It has proved difficult to encourage reduced water use on an individual level and at industrial level. Potable water is relatively cheap to buy and there are no widespread incentives for change. The benefits of reduced water use are harder to see than the savings apparent when reducing energy consumption.

There are also no policy or legislative targets forcing (or encouraging) people’s hands.

At the moment funding isn’t readily available either, so who should foot the bill? Water companies? Developers? Local authorities? The public? We need a combination of all interested parties to provide incentives for change in public perceptions and for developers to take action.

A collective of interested parties are working on a solution but there is no quick fix. It could be a while before development continues in the Sussex North Water Supply Zone.

The last word

Water neutrality is crucial to environmental protection and would result in a cycle of benefits.

It reduces the need to:

  • treat water
  • abstract water
  • use other natural resources to provide potable water.

It protects:

  • groundwater resources
  • habitats that rely on groundwater resources
  • habitats and resources affected by water treatment pollution.