The Living World
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Water Resources

The UK has seen a consistent rise in water use over time. The average household in the UK now uses 70% more water than in 1985, with domestic use accounting for almost half of the country’s water usage.

On average, a person in the UK uses 152 litres of water per day, and this figure is increasing. It’s estimated that by 2050, the southeast of the UK will require 1 billion litres of water daily to meet the rising demand.

There are several reasons for the rising demand for water:

  • Households now possess more water-using appliances than in the past. 56% of UK households own a dishwasher and 98% own a washing machine. Also, water is consumed through other means such as baths, showers and cleaning activities. As a result, domestic water consumption has increased rapidly.
  • Greenhouses, which require significant water for off-season food production, are used more extensively.
  • The production of goods and industrial needs consume a larger amount of water.
  • More leisure time has led to higher demand for water-intensive facilities such as swimming pools and golf courses.
  • The number of cars has grown by 5.5 million since 2000, increasing water use for car washing at home and in car washes.
  • The UK’s population growth has increased the overall demand for water.

Water Scarcity

Water availability varies across the UK for two main reasons:

  • Variability in the number and reliability of water sources, as well as differences in rainfall patterns.
  • Variations in population density that affect water demand.

These factors result in some areas having a water surplus and others facing a water deficit. The North and West of the UK typically have a surplus, thanks to higher precipitation and lower population density. In contrast, the South and East face deficits due to lower rainfall and higher population density.

Many areas of the UK experience water stress, with the highest levels occurring in the southeast, particularly in London. Water stress is categorised as high, moderate or low:

  • High Water Stress: About 70% of the water supply is utilised
  • Moderate Water Stress: Around 40% of the water supply is utilised.
  • Low Water Stress: Approximately 20% of the water supply is utilised.

Although the specific figures for each category may not always be precise, they are used to identify potential hotspots of water stress.

Managing Water Scarcity

Water scarcity needs to be managed. Without intervention, areas like the southeast would quickly deplete their natural water supplies.

Water transfer is essential to ensuring that areas experiencing high water stress receive adequate supplies. In the UK, this process is carried out in several ways, including:

  • Pipelines
  • Dams and Reservoirs
  • Canals and Waterways

The government has proposed the construction of a national water grid, similar to the national power grid, to facilitate the easy transport of water across the country via pipes. However, the plan is currently viewed as overly ambitious and highly disruptive. It would require the relocation of hundreds, possibly thousands, of families to accommodate construction. Also, the project’s high cost has rendered it impractical for consideration at this time.

Water Transfer AdvantagesWater Transfer Disadvantages
Provides water to areas suffering from scarcity during dry spells.High construction costs for dams, aqueducts and reservoirs.
Creates jobs through the construction of dams, aqueducts and pipelines. This pumps money into local economies, creating the multiplier effect.Damns can have negative environmental impacts, including potential flooding and disruption of fish migration.
Reservoirs offer recreational activities such as hikes and cycle paths, and can create new habitats for wildlife.Downstream river flow disruption can harm wildlife.
Changing rainfall patterns due to climate change can make the schemes ineffective.
Schemes cause ecosystems to mix, which could collapse food chains.

Case Study: Kielder Reservoir

One example of a functioning water transfer scheme in the UK is the Kielder Water in Northumberland, which releases water into the North Tyne River. This water can then be transferred to the Rivers Derwent, Wear and Tees when needed, supporting the water supply in cities such as Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Newcastle.

A split image comparison of two maps highlighting the area around Kielder Water in Northumberland. On the left, the map shows the broader region with Kielder Water prominently visible as a large blue reservoir surrounded by the green expanse of Kielder Forest. Various icons indicate points of interest around the water. On the right, the map provides a zoomed-in view focusing on the dam structure at the northern end of Kielder Water, with nearby road networks and the landscape's contours more distinctly marked.
Map from ©OpenStreetMaps
A scenic view of Kielder Water Dam in Northumberland showcasing a clear blue reservoir. A curving road runs alongside the water's edge, bordered by a stone wall and green fields. In the background, there is a densely covered forest with hills further back, under a partly cloudy sky. A small building with a dark roof is situated near the shore, contributing to the serene rural landscape.

Kielder dam

Kielder receives significantly more rainfall compared to the northeastern cities, which are situated in a rain shadow. Therefore, its water transfer is vital for supporting the large population centres.

Kielder AdvantagesKielder Disadvantages
Hydroelectric power generated at the reservoir provides clean and reliable energy.The dam has disrupted fish breeding patterns and significantly affected downstream habitats.
Tourism has created additional jobs and income for locals.Many families were relocated, and farmland along with villages were submerged to construct the reservoir.
Water insecurity in the North-East has been reduced, with rivers maintaining higher water levels than before the scheme’s implementation.

Key Terms

TermDefinition
Water SurplusA situation where the water supply exceeds demand.
Water DeficitA situation where water demand exceeds supply.
Water StressOccurs when demand surpasses the available amount of water for a certain period, or when poor water quality limits its use.
Water TransferThe act of moving or transporting water from one area to another, typically from a region with a water surplus to one with a water deficit.
Multiplier EffectA phenomenon where an increase in one type of economic activity in an area boosts demand for goods and services, leading to further development in other sectors.

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