Ian Barker, Head of Water Resources at the Environment Agency, looks at the government’s water strategy for England
As the country shivers in the coldest winter for over a decade it is difficult to think about the importance of water efficiency when summer and sunshine seem such a long way off. However, recent research by the Environment Agency reveals that in the UK pressure on water resources is growing, threatening both livelihoods and wildlife. Despite common pre-conceptions the UK has much less water per head than Mediterranean countries such as Italy or Spain.
Public sector role
In line with targets outlined in Future Water, the government’s water strategy for England, public sector organisations have a significant role to play in helping to reduce demand and wastage. The Environment Agency has been working closely with Ofwat to encourage water companies to help their customers decrease water demand as part of the periodic review (PR09) process.
Water is a key resource for businesses and the environment alike. Firms often neglect to consider water efficiency in wider efforts to improve sustainability and efficiency. Research undertaken by the Environment Agency to launch the Water Efficiency Awards 2009, identified clear misconceptions amongst business decision makers regarding the importance of water efficiency: only ten per cent of 1,000 UK decision makers questioned felt saving water was as important as saving energy.
Because all water needs to be treated before and after use, every drop wasted consumes energy and results in the release of greenhouse gases. Organisations need to be water-aware, both for the sake of our shared natural environment and on behalf of their staff or shareholders. The water bill of a manufacturing firm can represent up to
1 per cent of business turnover, whilst businesses in the retail, hospitality and service sectors are often wasting up to half of all the water they use.
The research did, however, highlight that government organisations are the best at implementing environmental initiatives with half of organisations in the public sector possessing an environmental policy – more than in any other industry. Just over a third of these environmentally active public bodies incorporate a water efficiency element with staff education and improving the efficiency of toilets, showers and white goods seen as the priority. Encouragingly, government organisations were also more likely than any of the other sectors surveyed to invest capital in water waste reduction measures in 2009.
There are also some interesting insights into varying attitudes to water efficiency regionally. Worryingly, those areas of the country classified as most water stressed were the least proactive in developing sustainability policies. Three quarters (74 per cent) of businesses in the South East of England lacked a sustainability initiative, in marked contrast to Wales where almost two thirds (61 per cent) possess a policy. This commitment to the environment looks set to continue with over 80 per cent of senior figures within Welsh organisations planning further sustainability activity in 2009.
Overall, tough economic conditions look set to exacerbate wastage, with the research highlighting that business leaders are struggling to maintain investment in ‘green’ measures such as water and energy efficiency as a result of the credit crunch. The research showed that 55 per cent of businesses expect to be forced to cut back on investment in sustainability measures as a result of economic necessity in 2009.
The Environment Agency is keen to highlight, however, that sustainability measures and cost cutting go hand in hand. Envirowise, the government-funded programme to help businesses with the sustainable use of resources, estimates that UK companies could save £9 million a day through even simple water efficiency measures. In fact, a business could save more than £900 per year in water and wastewater treatment costs by fixing a constant 5mm leak from a single tap and over £3,800 per year by installing infrared flush sensors in urinals (http://www.envirowise.gov.uk/uk/Topics-and-Issues/Water/Water-Top-tips.html).
Savings in Nottingham
An excellent example of a water efficiency initiative is a scheme implemented by Nottingham City Council, winners at the last Water Efficiency Awards in 2007. After consolidating its water bill into a single payment, Nottingham City Council found it was spending nearly £1 million. This was when the in-house Energy and Sustainability team realised they needed a radical overhaul of how they managed water.
The organisation began by preparing a conservation action plan. This identified the top 10 most expensive water accounts across the council and any buildings with unusually high rates of water consumption. Over a two-year period between 2004 and 2006, the Energy and Sustainability team worked with specialist companies to install leak detection and reduction devices, including the introduction of half-hourly metering. Some ‘high profile’ projects, including urinal controls, were introduced as part of water conservation measures. These included a school rainwater harvesting system and a borehole facility at an outdoor environment centre.
Humorous messages were used to ensure staff were kept informed on water efficiency. This included a special ‘Declare your leaks’ campaign on St David’s Day, creating a ‘Waterwoman’ superhero and ‘The Drips’ cartoon characters, and using the strapline ‘Banishing drips from the city council’. These slogans and images were attached to reports, memos and posters to make the key messages of the campaign both eye-catching and memorable.
The new centralised billing system ensures that consumption irregularities are easily noticed and inspected. Staff and building users are more aware of the importance of water efficiency. The results over the two years were significant: by reducing water consumption by 25 per cent the council saved £290,000. In the most successful cases water consumption has reduced in some buildings by nearly two-thirds. As the cost of installing new equipment at more than 60 of the council’s buildings totalled £160,000, and maintenance costs are £1,000 a year, the project has already returned the investment made.
Nottingham City Council is now aiming to build on its good work, monitoring water use on a monthly basis and using the readings to continually improve standards and performance. This project is an excellent example of how effective sustainability initiatives can bring both environmental and financial rewards and contains elements which many public sector organisations can use for inspiration.
Committing to efficiency
Unfortunately, according to the Environment Agency’s research success stories such as this are likely to become scarce. As the economy enters a tough economic period it is vital that businesses remain committed to best practice for the sake of the employees, shareholders, the wider public and the environment. Whilst company finances may be under strain the majority of efficiency measures reduce costs by reducing water and energy use.
It is vital that businesses remain committed to best practice through this difficult economic period. Whilst we appreciate the strains that company finances are under, the majority of efficiency measures actually reduce costs by reducing water and energy use. Not only is green business good business, but also we all have our part to play to help save water.
The 2009 Environment Agency Water Efficiency Awards highlight examples of best practice. The entry deadline for awards is April 15 and businesses interested in entering should visit www.water-efficiency-awards.org.uk to download an entry form. Businesses looking for advice on how to improve their water efficiency should visit www.businesslink.gov.uk.