Are we wasting water in Scotland?

Maria Clemens is writing an interdisciplinary PhD on Scotland’s water resources and the water use of the economy and population at the University of Strathclyde. Having previously worked as a water resource manager in arid and temperate countries, she is now interested in water use patterns in water-rich countries like Scotland. 

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Research Introduction

Water resource management tries to predict water availability and human demand to secure the future water supply in a healthy environment. However, human water use is the most challenging parameter and difficult to measure or predict because everyone values and use water individually and differently.

Scotland is a water-rich country where water can be taken for granted as an always-available resource. Hence, it allows wasteful use as well as a flourishing economic production with high water demand. Luckily, Scotland rarely suffers from drought conditions. Still, research showed that due to limited water storages, such as groundwater, it is becoming vulnerable to water shortages in a changing climate. Therefore, a flexible adaptation strategy is needed that considers an enhanced consumption due to water abundance and an opposite need for reduction during more frequent dry months.

My research shows that the many sectors of the Scottish economy have reduced their water use over the last decade, in contrast to the domestic sector. As a result, Scottish household water consumption has risen steadily. Compared to the rest of the UK and other European countries, this development is unusual. Therefore, this research also examines the many causes of water consumption to understand this unique behaviour.

Cartoon man with a red bucket with a Scottish saltire on it, surrounded by puddles of water.
Image by Maria Clemens.

Distribution Network

Scotland comprises the northern third of Great Britain and is home to 5.4 million people in 2.45 million households. The land is divided into three geological regions of the montane Highlands in the north and west, a rift valley of the Central Lowlands, and the hilly Southern Uplands. Most of the population is located in the Central Lowlands belt. However, to supply all consumers and businesses with potable water, a huge coordination and distribution network is needed.

Large faucet. A man is standing on it, turning a handle. The water is coming from a container decorated with buildings and an upward pointing arrow. A large drop of water is falling from the faucet into a bucket.
Image by Maria Clemens.

My historical analysis of this network goes into the 1970s, where various small overburdened water suppliers merged into thirteen suppliers. Those merged into a single supplier, Scottish Water, in 2002 for better coordination and equal services. Moreover, the state of technology was insufficient for detailed forecasting, especially when it came to the uncomfortable and costly issue of leakages. In fact, it was and still is difficult to estimate the water losses of such a network. Although metering systems help, they are only used to a limited extent and mainly for commercial consumers.

Water Users

My research of a time series from 1971 to 2018 found out that the water demand of the measured supply, mainly provided for industry and services, reduced over time by half. While the demand of the unmeasured supply, primarily for public institutions, governmental services, urban landscaping and households, increased twice as much. In fifty years, the water consumption ratio shifted from a more economic driven to a domestic dominated one.

This seems to be wasteful usage by a slow-growing population, but is high water use in a water-rich country really bad? After all, Scotland is famous for its water, with lots of rain and countless rivers, waterfalls and lochs. Moreover, the government is advertising the country as a Hydro-Nation, where water resources should bring the maximum benefit to the Scottish economy. So why not also for its citizens? Indeed, Scotland attracts many water demanding businesses, thriving, growing, and consequently consuming more water. But in order to answer whether this water is being used wastefully or not, I needed to know how much water was required to develop products or services efficiently.

After analysing water-use efficiency, it became clear that nearly all economic sectors with heavy water demands have improved their water use efficiency – besides the domestic sector. However, the domestic efficiency of household water use is also not equal to measure within the economy. Hence, population growth was used to measure the possible increasing number of consumers, but Scotland’s population only grow by 3.8% in those five decades, which cannot explain a doubled consumption alone.

Hand with water falling onto the palm.
Image by Maria Clemens.

Water Use in Europe

To understand the household water consumption change, it is best to analyse the amount of water that an average person uses in litres per person per day (l/p/d). That consumption can vary a lot, as we see in Europe, where the daily amount ranged from 60 to 200 litres in 2017. Thereby, the average consumption in Europe was 128 litres, and Scotland was already one of the higher European consumers with 153 l/p/d. However, since 2017 a lot of effort has been made in the EU to address climate change and enhance sustainable behaviours and uses of resources. At the same time, it had to deal with extraordinary heatwaves, droughts and water shortages during the summer months. As a result, most of the countries kept their average water consumption, while some of them had an impressive decreasing trend. However, there are also countries with a continuously rising water demand – and one of them is Scotland. So why are some countries decreasing their water consumption while others increasing it continuously?

Driving Factors

Many factors control water consumption, with each person having their individual needs and preferences of use water. Depending on the level of awareness of individual water consumption, water is used very differently, especially in the bathroom or kitchen. Some people try to save as much water as possible, while others use it to the fullest. But besides behaviour, consumption also depends on other things, such as tap water quality, water-intensive hobbies or pets, etc. Also relevant is the use and age of water-consuming appliances such as washing machines and dishwashers and whether they include water-saving technology. All those factors influence the individual consumed water volume per day. But when analysed at a higher level, these factors flatten out within the average consumption of the national studies. Critical elements of those are – besides the sometimes still-unknown size of water losses due to leakages – the household size, economic income, and use of water meters.

Household size

Scotland’s household size has changed drastically over the past decades. In the 1970s, a three-person household was most common, which changed in 2011, where the one-person household became the most common one. Hence fewer people share the water, as they do not cook, clean or use it together.

Economic income

Economic income increased and double in the last 20 years, enabling more or bigger water-intensive devices and properties like a garden, a pool, or a holiday house. With more prosperity, the rural exodus also changed; hence more people can live in countryside houses and commute to the cities.

Water meters

Household water consumption is not metered as it is included in a fixed charge as a percentage proportion of council tax that each household pays. However, water meters create more awareness of consumption, as shown in England and Wales, where metered households use 25% less water. Because the metering enables financial rewards with less consumption and motivates more water-saving behaviour.

Future Prospects

There are several ongoing agendas to reduce and optimise water consumption in Europe. Hence the UK has ambitious targets to minimise the average consumption to 118 litres per person per day by 2050. This also fits into Scotland’s plan to become a Hydro Nation with responsible and sustainable water use. Nevertheless, to reach such a minimal level of water consumption, Scotland has to drastically reduce its current average consumption of 165 l/p/d. In addition, some profound behavioural changes are needed to reverse the trend of its steadily increasing demand. Especially when, as a result of the ongoing climate crisis, Scotland will also experience a higher frequency of heatwaves and periods of water shortages in the near future.