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We’re using too much water

Environment Agency report warns parts of England could see significant water supply deficits by 2050
We’re using too much water

Without action to increase supply, reduce demand and cut down on wastage, many areas in England could see significant water supply deficits by 2050 – particularly in the south east.

This is the conclusion of the first major report on water resources in England, which cites climate change and demand from a growing population as the biggest pressures on the availability of water.

Changing attitudes to water

Water ‘abstraction’ is the process of taking water from a surface source (such as a river, stream or canal) or from an underground source for purposes ranging from the public water supply to agriculture and electricity supplies.

The ‘State of the Environment: Water Resources’ report highlights unsustainable levels of water abstraction, leakage from water companies – currently estimated at 3 billion litres per day – and demand from industry and the public as three of the issues to tackle in order to protect the water environment.

‘We need to change our attitudes to water use. It is the most fundamental thing needed to ensure a healthy environment but we are taking too much of it and have to work together to manage this precious resource.

‘Industry must innovate and change behaviours in order to reduce demand and cut down on wastage – and we all have a duty to use water more wisely at home. With demand on the rise, water companies must invest more in infrastructure to address leakage instead of relying on abstraction and the natural environment to make up this shortfall.’

Chair of the Environment Agency

The impact of our water use

The report shows that current levels of water abstraction are unsustainable in more than a quarter of groundwaters and one fifth of rivers, leading to reduced flows which could damage local ecology and wildlife.

Previously, unsustainable abstraction has prevented up to 15% of rivers meeting good ecological status – including globally important chalk streams. Summer river flows and groundwater levels may decrease further in the future.

Last year the government announced a plan for abstraction reform which will review existing licences and introduce more controls to protect water resources. The Environment Agency has started work in four priority catchments to test out new licensing approaches to help meet local demand.

Of the water taken from freshwater sources over half (55%) is abstracted by water companies for public water supply and more than a third (36%) is used for electricity supply and other industries.

Personal water use targets

The Environment Agency has urged water companies to pursue ambitious water resource management plans and called on industry to play its part to find ways to use water more efficiently.

The government’s 25 year environment plan sets out an ambition to reduce individual water use – on average 140 litres per person each day – by working with industry to set a personal consumption target. The Environment Agency will work with the government to set this target and cost-effective measures to meet it.

WaterAid’s three ways to save water

Cutting down on the amount of water you use will not only reduce your bills, but will also reduce the level of climate-changing greenhouse gases you release into the atmosphere.


Turn off the tap when brushing your teeth – a running tap uses up to nine litres of water a minute – and try having speedier showers.


From shower heads to tap aerators, find out about free water-saving gadgets that you can get from your water company. Visit to see what you’re entitled to.


Place a water-saving device in your toilet cistern to reduce the volume of water used in each flush. Depending on the size of your cistern, you could save between one and three litres of water each time you flush.

A Water UK spokesperson said, ‘The water industry works hard to protect the environment, and companies will set out ambitious plans later this year which should mean less water is taken out of our rivers. We’ve also cut leakage a third since the 1990s, but we know there’s a lot more to do which is why it’s one of our top priorities.’

UK not immune to water scarcity

Jonathan Farr, WaterAid’s senior policy analyst on water security and climate change, said the report ‘demonstrates that the UK is not immune to the water scarcity issues we see in the places in which we work every day around the world.’

‘As seen earlier this year in Cape Town, no one can take water for granted, no matter where they live. Following warnings from NASA last week, this is another call for governments to work with utilities on tackling the water crisis. While the UK has access to world-class engineers and resources, WaterAid is already working in countries facing severe water restrictions.’

Jonathan added that by using water more carefully in our homes and gardens, and through the ongoing work of water utilities to address leakages, we can help to counteract this increasing water stress from population growth and the extreme weather caused by climate change.

‘An average person in the UK uses 140 litres per day — almost three times that of the World Health Organization’s recommended amount for daily personal use’, he said. ‘All of us can take small steps, including shorter showers and fewer toilet flushes, to help conserve our water supply for the future. We must all stop taking water for granted and treat it as the precious and finite resource that it is.’

Click here to find out why all governments need to focus on water issues.

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