Climate Change and Water

Climate Change and Water

Watching documentaries about climate change and fast fashion was my entry point to learning about environmental issues, yet they tend to paint the picture that it is poorer and hotter climates that will suffer from its effects. However, since joining UpRising’s Environmental Leadership Programme (ELP), I have learnt how prominent environmental issues are within my community and the sizeable change that a small group of individuals can initiate. As part of the programme, UpRising have set us the challenge of creating a social action campaign on an issue we feel is important in Birmingham. The UpRising ELP cohort are covering an array of environmental problems from plastic waste to the lack of green spaces. I am a member of the ‘water warriors’ group, also known as Sustainable Water Use Birmingham (SWUB). SWUB’s campaign aims to bring water waste to the top of the agenda when people think about climate change and their environment.

With the arrival of COVID-19, our plan has had to adapt for a digital audience. SWUB have created an e-toolkit for businesses in Birmingham, which includes practical tips on how they can reduce their water footprint by responsibly managing their water consumption. In doing so, businesses will reduce pressure on the natural environment and lower the cost of their water bills. Additionally, we are running a social media campaign on Twitter and Instagram (@SWUBham) which aims to educate our audience on how making small changes to their habits will reduce water waste and to explain why the issue is important in a climate change context. Our website consolidates our campaign, with all resources available in one place https://sustainablewaterus.wixsite.com/swubham. 

Below I have detailed how our day-to-day water usage can play a vital role in the fight against climate change, from direct use within the home to indirect water consumption through our diets and clothing. 

Why Save Water?

Generally, water waste is not an environmental issue that initially springs to mind, as the media tends to centre around recycling, melting ice caps and…plastic straws. Yet water is vital to sustaining our environment. 

At the turn of a tap in many wealthy nations, we can use as much water as we like and often don’t give it much thought. The accessibility of water is commonly taken for granted, which leads us to consume and waste huge volumes. The average UK citizen will use 150 litres of water per day. However, other European countries such as Denmark consume just 85 liters per day per person, nearly half of the UK equivalent. 

Birmingham’s water travels over 70 miles from the Elan Valley in Wales, hence it’s delicious taste! Like many other utilities, the extraction, transportation, management and disposal of water is extremely energy intensive and produces carbon emissions that contribute towards the climate crisis. Water suppliers extract water from the UK’s rivers and chalk streams but with climate change, a growing population and excessive consumption, the demand for water is simply outweighing the natural supply. Rising temperatures, dry summers and over extraction have seen some of the UK’s water reserves dry up entirely, devastating the surrounding wildlife and ecosystems. Floods (dare I remind you of storms Ciara, Dennis, Ellen etc.) reduce freshwater availability further, leading to water shortages.

Elan Valley Past and Present, The history of the Elan Valley 

Just last year, the BBC reported that in 25 years the UK will not have enough water to meet our needs! On a larger scale, the London School of Economics have predicted that global water demands are set to double by 2050, meaning that 20% of the world’s population will then live in water scarce-regions.

It isn’t just the environmentalists shouting about this problem – water suppliers are also trying to encourage more responsible consumption by providing households with free water saving equipment to fit in their bathrooms, such as shower saves and hippo bags for toilets (link below). 

The water crisis is a vicious circle; climate change increases water scarcity but water scarcity is created by climate change and irresponsible consumption! So, what can you do to make a difference and break the cycle?

Direct Use of Water in the Home

A huge amount of our water consumption comes from the home, especially the kitchen and bathroom. We tend to have the habit of letting the tap run whilst waiting for water to get cool or warm, but this water can be saved by filling up a jug and storing it in the fridge for later or used to water plants. Two thirds of UK citizens leave the tap running whilst brushing their teeth. Breaking this habit would save an astonishing 8 million litres each day! The UK ‘showers away’ more than 2 billion litres of clean water daily – reducing your shower time saves 15 litres for every minute less that is spent in the shower. 

Food and Fashion

Our water waste is not always as apparent as a running tap; water is embedded in products that we buy and dispose of such as food and clothes.

The average UK citizen throws 240 litres of water away per day in the form of food. Reducing your food waste by only buying what you need, staying organised with ‘best before dates’ and making soups and stocks out of food scraps will reduce this waste and save you some pennies!

Meat, dairy and chocolate (cries) are at the top of the leader board when it comes to water intensive foods! The water footprint of meat is much higher than other food groups due to the amount of land mass, grass and feed that is required to rear livestock. Beef is particularly water intensive, requiring approximately 15,000 litres per kilogram, in comparison to 1kg of potatoes which requires 280 litres of water. An overhaul of our diets is not feasible for everyone, but making small changes like using oat milk rather than cow’s milk for your morning coffee can have a big impact! 

In total, the fashion industry uses 93 billion cubic metres of water each year and is responsible for 20% of global water waste! 

Clothes are extremely water intensive, with the production of jeans using approximately 10,000 litres of water per pair and 2,700 litres for a cotton t-shirt! As a direct result of mass cotton production, rivers and lakes all over the world are drying up, which has huge knock-on effects for communities, wildlife and the environment downstream. This water scarcity leads to the loss of livelihoods for surrounding communities and often forced climate migration. This is the case in Central Asia, where the Aral Sea was once the largest lake in the world. Over the last 50 years, it has shrunk to just 10% of its original as a result of its feeding rivers and canals being redirected for cotton irrigation. Therefore, reducing the amount of new clothes that you buy will save water and prevent further environmental degradation.

The fashion industry is responsible for a lot of environmental degradation including 20% of all freshwater pollution, mainly through manufacturers disposing of toxic dyes and chemicals in rivers. Indonesia’s Citarum River is a stark example of this; the riverbank is home to over 200 textile factories and consequently it is the most polluted river in the world! 

Water pollution continues through the lifecycle of clothing items by the shedding of millions of microfibers each time they are washed. A Guppyfriend washing bag or Cora ball can be used to catch these microfibers within your washing machine, to reduce water pollution. When we wash clothes, we all need to make sure to do a full load to prevent friction from producing excess microfibers. To save water and prevent pollution try to wash your clothes less frequently – instead, air them outside or put your jeans in the freezer to give them a refresh! 

UpRising’s Environmental Leadership Programme has been the catalyst for me learning more about a wide variety of environmental issues in the Birmingham area, including the UK’s water crisis. To check out the rest of this year’s campaigns search the hashtag #ChangingTheFaceOfPower and @UpRising_UK on social media.

Saving water is easy, as SWUB’s campaign has shown! Here is a quick run-down of some of our favourite tips on how to reduce your water waste:

  • Be more mindful of your running tap – turn it off between use 

  • Take shorter showers or fit a ‘shower save’

  • Fit a hippo bag in your toilet, as 30% of household water use comes from the toilet!

  • Incorporate less water intensive foods into your diet

  • Reduce the amount of ‘new’ clothes that you buy from fast fashion brands. Shopping second hand via vintage and charity shops, Depop & eBay, borrowing from friends and family, attend a clothing swap – these alternatives will save you money too!

  • Follow us @SWUBham on Twitter and Instagram for more #TapTips https://twitter.com/SWUBham  https://www.instagram.com/swubham/

  • For more on Fast Fashion check out my blog post, Fast Fashion: at what cost? https://www.uprising.org.uk/highlight/fast-fashion-what-cost

Resources for more information: