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The changing social, economic and cultural aspects of water use within the UK

22 March 2021

3 minutes to read

The changing social, economic and cultural aspects of water use within the UK

Elizabeth Lawson is a final year EngD student in the Centre for Water Systems at the University of Exeter. She is part of the STREAM Industrial Doctorate Centre and is funded by UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and Northumbrian Water Group. Her EngD operationalisation is supervised by Professor David Butler and Professor Raziyeh Farmani and her research is focused on the of resilience in the UK water sector.

My research focus

As global threats such as climate change, increasing urbanisation and changing demographics have resulted in ever increasing levels of global uncertainty, the need for resilient and sustainable water systems is greater than ever before.

My research is focussed on identifying actions that can be taken at both the strategic, and operational level within a UK water company, to increase system resilience. With my specific interests centred on the impacts that the social aspects of the network have on overall system performance.

World Water Day 2021 and COVID-19 and the UK water sector

This year’s World Water Day theme is the value of water, and is about what water means to people, and how we can better protect such a vital resource. The aim is to look beyond the price of water and to acknowledge the enormous and complex value water has for households, culture, health, education, economics and the integrity of the natural environment.

Some research that I have been involved with this year at the Centre for Water Systems, in collaboration with the a Chartered Institute of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), University College Dublin and the University of West England, has explored the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the UK water sector. Results from this work tie in with the focus of World Water Day 2021 and have highlighted the changing social, economic and cultural aspects of water use within the UK. Whilst also identifying how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted wider water sector resilience.

This research found that during the first UK wide national lockdown, water companies reported increases in domestic water demand of 20-40%. The increase in demand from predominately urban areas, meant water companies were tasked with supplying more water than ever before. With some areas of the UK relying on water tankered in from other regions in order to meet demand. United Utilities, the water service provider for the North West, which supplies 7.3 million people, reported putting an additional 7 billion litres of water into the network to make sure taps kept flowing.

The warm weather and reduced rainfall during April and May 2020, closure of schools and non-essential industry, and a mass move to working from home all contributed to such large scale changes in demand patterns. Other changes to social practices such as increased hand washing and a national renewed love of gardening also contributed to such drastic increases in water usage. Although the non- domestic water demand dropped off entirely during the first national lockdown, water companies found that the increase in domestic demand more than made up for it, meaning companies still needed to pump even more water into supply.

Water companies and organisations such as Water UK released campaigns asking the public to do their part and try to reduce the amount of water we were using, however only a few were effective. Wetter weather in June and July 2020 helped to replenish raw water stocks with companies noting a slight reduction in demand, however an example of the effects of wide scale social change on UK water resources and a shift in water values had been provided.

Other results from our study also highlighted the role of the wider water sector within local communities.  During the initial lockdown period, the water sector pledged not to furlough any of their staff and instead redeployed the small amount of staff that were unable to carry out their normal roles to helping out local communities. Multiple water companies have also brought forward capital projects in order to provide additional jobs and further support their local economies.

Although the pandemic is still ongoing, and has impacted many areas of society, the impact on the value of water within the UK, which continues to extend beyond basic economic cost of treatment and supply, has been clearly demonstrated over the past 12 months. Moving forward, it is necessary for all aspects of the value of water to be acknowledged and appreciated if we are to protect this vital resource.

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Elizabeth Lawson


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