How our voracious appetite for water is having a profound effect on the environment

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The Independent Online

Last year we were desperate for water. Now we are clearing up from the floods. Complaining about the weather is a national hobby, but, on the whole, the British climate has been pretty genial and temperate. The rain has never been far away and seldom been seriously delinquent.

Things have changed. The climate has become more chaotic. As cities spread and car use increases, we are sealing off urban land with concrete and asphalt. In the countryside, the push for greater agricultural production has ploughed up wetlands and woodlands. And, in our homes, the demand for power showers and greener lawns has meant we use more water and flush more waste down our drains.

The first temptation in a crisis is to find someone to blame; the next to throw concrete and steel at an engineered solution. With water we need to be less reactive and more thoughtful. Water touches all our lives. It has carved out the landscapes we live in and determined where we settle and how we live. We need to remember the complexity of the relationship between water, land and life.

Rather than speeding water into our drains, we need to slow it down again. We need to make space for water to percolate back into the ground to recharge our aquifers. We need to change our patterns of behaviour, to use our roofs, gardens and parks to harvest rain. We need to dig up our Tarmac car parks and replace them with a porous surface. We need to restore our flood plains, wetlands and upland woodlands, and change the way we use nitrates and phosphates. We need to separate our foul water from our storm water and think about sewage as a fertile resource rather than waste. Most of all, we need to stop taking water for granted, and respect it as central to our lives – the canary in the cage of climate change.

Flooding is one of the most horrible things to suffer. Its effects last for years – especially if it means you can no longer get insurance or sell your house. In an attempt to assuage public fears, the automatic reaction can be to call for higher flood barriers. But these may not be the only solution.

Drought and flood are part of the same cycle – one that has become destabilised. Just 1 per cent of the earth's water is drinkable and it steadily recycles at its own rate. Why is the freshwater cycle becoming increasingly rushed and unstable? Climate change, and its effect on the jet stream, is part of the problem. Weather patterns are increasingly volatile, with large amounts of rain being dumped in short, sharp bursts between long periods of drought and evaporation.

Burgeoning domestic demand is also to blame. More single-person households and increasing use of water by individuals are putting a strain on rivers and aquifers. Higher car ownership and parking pressures have encouraged us to pave over substantial areas of our towns and suburbs. Rain that once sank into front gardens and playing fields now bounces off impermeable surfaces to swell the deluge in storm drains. Combined sewers that cannot cope with downpours overflow into rivers.

Out in the countryside, decades of subsidised land drainage and deep ploughing mean that polluted water and topsoil washes off farmland into artificially straightened rivers, eventually bottlenecking and flooding low-lying built developments. Both nationally and globally, floods cause more damage than any other natural disaster. Around 1.8 million households, 140,000 commercial properties and 1.4 million hectares of agricultural land in England are at risk.

What should we do? For a start, we need to think harder about the places in which we build. The amount of new development that ignores the basic constraints of water supply or flood risk is alarming. In the designated growth area of Aylesbury, for instance, 11 per cent of new homes are to be built in areas not covered by the Association of British Insurers' guarantee of affordable insurance. We're simply creating problems for the future.

Improving the way we construct new developments will still only slow the rate at which the problem gets worse. Government also needs to encourage the public to replace impermeable surfaces in buildings, car parks and roads. Resurfacing with porous asphalt or gravel could make a big difference to the amount of water that runs off into storm drains. And, of course, we need to protect our gardens. It is absurd that under current rules they are designated as "brownfield sites".

We must also look outside the cities. Since the Second World War, the government has subsidised farmers to encourage them to use marginal land to maximise production. This has meant draining wetlands, clearing wooded slopes, straightening rivers and embanking flood meadows. Instead, rainwater should be recaptured in upland woodlands and wetlands, then gradually released into meandering rivers and stored at times of peak rainfall in flood meadows and marshes. This ought to be a prime objective of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Water companies in England and Wales spend up to £313m a year dealing with nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants. These resources would be better used tackling the pollution at source – and, indeed, some water companies have purchased critical upland sites, within their catchments, to allow the water to soak naturally through wetlands and forests to the rivers. We need to persuade the Department for Environmental, Food and Rural Affairs to use farm subsidies to reward farmers who do not over-drain their land, and who instead allow water to permeate into the aquifers. Defra must recognise clean, available water as a key product of the farming system.

We can all make a difference in our homes, too. There may seem to be too much water in the UK today, but the problem tomorrow may well be the opposite. Water-efficient design, such as dual-flush lavatories and low-flow taps and showerheads, can reduce household water use by half.

German households use one-third less water than do UK ones. Compulsory water-metering would make British consumers equally conservationist. It would also save them money. Setting water bills on the basis of rateable value makes little sense, and gives householders no control over what they spend. Better to charge on the basis of how much they use, with charges that climb sharply if they fill swimming pools or waters vast lawns.

A farmer in Kent summed it up: "Down here in the South-east, we spend six months of the year talking about building the riverbanks up and dredging the rivers to get the water away quicker to stop the flooding – and the other six months wondering where all the water has gone."

Water management is one of the most pressing crises we face. To lessen the seesaw between drought and flood, we need a fundamental shift in attitudes – to use water carefully and slow its journey from sky to sea.

Kim Wilkie is a landscape architect. He advises the Conservative Party's Quality of Life Policy Group

How to hold back the rising tide

Water and Towns

* Change building standards and layouts. This could make a dramatic difference to the way that water is used and recycled. There are connections to be made between harvesting water, managing waste, growing food and generating energy on a local scale.

* Strongly discourage further building on flood plains.

* Create incentives – through building standards and water charges – to replace impermeable surfaces on buildings and roads, and in car parks.

* Set the building standard for daily water consumption at 110 litres per capita.

Water and Land

* Farming's new Single Payment System and the European Water Framework Directive could bring farming and water conservation into timely harmony. It will rely on an agile and imaginative Defra to pay farmers to produce food in a way that works for water, wildlife and landscape.

* Set a clear policy that recognises clean, available water as a key product of the farming system.

* Bring together multiple funding sources – agricultural subsidies, flood management funds, water companies, and the Rural Development Agencies – to support the role that farming and land management play in water management, from diffuse pollution to soil permeability, from flood management to environmental flows.

Water Efficiency

* Improve water efficiency in existing homes. The Environment Agency calculates annual savings of £41 on an average water bill. Given that those bills are set to rise, the actual saving could be appreciably more.

* Help people to understand that water is one area where they can make a dramatic and immediate personal difference.

* Meter water. This will ensure fair pricing and encourage sensible usage.