Approximately three-quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered in water. Only about 2.5% of that water, however, is fresh. What’s more, that 2.5% is increasingly being contaminated through human pollution.

The world’s current demand for and treatment of water is totally unsustainable. This means that water conservation has to be made a top priority for everyone

Some hard truths about water conservation

The UN World Water Development Report 2021 makes for alarming reading. According to researchers, a quarter of cities around the world are already experiencing regular water shortages.

This figure is expected to increase due to a combination of population growth and a lack of investment in water-management infrastructure.

Furthermore, there has been a dramatic increase in both flood- and drought-related disasters in the last 20 years as compared to the previous 20 years (134% and 29% respectively).

Flooding has been at its most severe in Asia. Drought has been at its most severe in sub-Saharan Africa, although North America has also been affected.

Unsurprisingly, the study calls both for more financing from governments and better coordination between governments and other stakeholders such as environmental organizations.

It did not specifically address the issue of water pollution. This is, however, a major and growing concern. It’s typically at its worst in places where heavy industries have minimal regulation.

Water conservation versus business interests

One of the major challenges of water conservation is that it often conflicts directly with established business interests. Sometimes these conflicts can be managed through negotiation and compromise

Sometimes, however, there is simply no middle ground and regulators (particularly governments) have to pick a side.

The cotton industry is a headline example of this. Cotton requires nutrient-rich soil, a lot of heat and a lot of water to grow successfully. This means that it only grows naturally in a relatively small number of locations

These locations on their own are nowhere near enough to supply the world’s current appetite for cotton. As a result, the cotton industry makes extensive use of chemicals and artificial irrigation to grow cotton in places it would never be found naturally.

In principle, governments could implement and enforce regulations to force the cotton industry to change its practices. In practice, governments are reluctant to do so because the cotton industry is a major employer. That means it generates a lot of tax income and governments need this income to pay their bills (especially since COVID19).

Governments can, however, be spurred into action if they can be put under enough pressure from voters. Businesses can be spurred into action if they can be put under enough pressure from consumers.

This means that resolving this issue (and many like it) generally requires a two-pronged approach.

As voters, we can make sure to put our point to our representatives. As individuals, we can spread awareness of the importance of water conservation and link up with other stakeholders to lobby governments more effectively

As purchasers, we can use our wallets to endorse companies that act sustainably and, by extension, to show our displeasure to ones that don’t.

Water conservation versus other conservation

One of the ironies of water conservation is that it can often conflict with other conservation measures

Possibly the most obvious example of this is the conflict between water conservation and the need to switch to clean, and preferably renewable, sources of energy.

Hydropower is already a major contributor towards clean, renewable, energy and looks set to become even more important. Unfortunately, the rush to harness hydropower has led to some questionable implementations of it

These aren’t necessarily creating more problems than they solve. They are, however, creating problems that didn’t necessarily have to be created. 

Possibly the reason for this is that there is often a conflict between maximum efficiency and maximum sustainability. For example, gaining the most hydropower from a water source maximizes efficiency but also maximizes the impact on the local ecology, thus reducing sustainability

Extracting less hydropower makes the extraction less efficient and hence less cost-efficient but has less of an impact on the local ecology and hence is more sustainable.

Again, resolving this issue is going to require both targeted and sustained pressure from consumers (and voters) along with changes in behaviour. In particular, consumers need to be realistic about the fact that all energy has an environmental price, the only question is how high it is.

This means that the move to sustainable energy has to be made alongside a move to (far) greater energy efficiency.

The costs of water conservation

Realistically, some elements of water conservation will be more expensive than the unsustainable options. For example, commercially-produced environmentally-friendly cleaning products tend to be more expensive than ones that use a lot of chemicals.

With that said, there are often more affordable alternatives if you take the time to learn about them.

Furthermore, many aspects of water conservation will actually save you money on your bills. Remember, every time you use water when you don’t need to, you are flushing money down the drain

This means that the savings you make by reducing your water usage can easily counterbalance any initial expenses created through improving sustainability.

Conserving water can also help to lower your local taxes. In simple terms, the more you do to conserve water, the more you will reduce the load on your local sewage system

At a minimum, this will extend its life and lower its running costs. It could help to prevent incidents such as sewage leaks. These are horrendous for the environment and expensive for taxpayers.

Ways To
Save Water

How you can help to conserve water

There are lots of ways you can help to conserve water. At a macro level, connect with conservation groups, support relevant charities and make sure that you make your voice heard with your governmental representatives

At a micro level, make sure that you always take water conservation into consideration as you go about your daily life.

In particular, aim to reduce the quantity of chemicals you use (these often pollute water) and the amount of energy you use (this often impacts the water supply)

Also, try to keep your use of water to a minimum. Only use it when you really need it and even then use as little as possible to complete the task.

With all that said, here are some specific tips for saving water. They apply to different areas of your life. Many of them cost little or nothing to implement

Some of them can make a big difference. Some of them will only make a small difference. Remember, however, that small differences add up.

In general

  • Try to buy local. The haulage industry is still very dependent on fossil fuels. These require a lot of water to produce.
  • Keep flights to a minimum. The aviation industry also makes huge use of fossil fuels.
  • Try to use public transport as much as possible. 
  • Practice fuel-efficient driving
  • Only wash your car when you really need to. Use a bucket instead of a hose.
  • Avoid “fast fashion”. Cheap clothes, especially cotton ones, use a lot of water to produce but soon end up in landfills.
  • Minimize your use of paper and try to use recycled paper when possible. Manufacturing new paper uses a lot of water. Recycling paper uses less. Always recycle your own paper when you can. Remember, however, that paper with plastic in it (shiny paper) generally can’t be recycled.
  • Reuse water when you can. For example, use water from cooking to water plants.
  • Use low-energy options as much as you can, even if that just means light bulbs. Again, this helps reduce the use of fossil fuel and the water needed to produce it.

Throughout the home (and garden)

  • Look out for leaks

Leaks are the ultimate waste of water. They literally serve no purpose. Keep your eyes open for them by checking your water meter before you go to bed and after you wake up. If there is a change, then you should look for a leak.

If you live in a home when people have different bedtimes, then check your meter at the start and end of a two-hour period when nobody is using the water.

  • Add insulation wherever you can, especially on your water pipes. This means you waste less water by having to run it until it’s hot.
  • Try to avoid chemical cleaners as much as possible

This may seem harsh but the world’s reliance on chemical cleaners is largely a product of busy lifestyles and smart marketing

If you keep on top of your regular cleaning, then you’re unlikely to get in a situation where you really need to use harsh chemicals such as drain unblockers. 

Even with COVID19, you don’t need to keep every part of your home utterly sterile. You may need disinfectants in some parts of kitchens and bathrooms. Unless you have really vulnerable people at home, however, you do not need to disinfect every last surface. 

Using natural cleaners helps the environment in a number of ways. In terms of water conservation, it reduces the amount of energy used in the production and transport processes

This reduces the amount of water used to create that energy. It also reduces the quantity of chemicals released into the water supply and hence makes sewage treatment easier.

It’s also worth noting that using natural cleaners can do a lot to help lower your household’s shopping bill. These savings can be put towards the cost of other sustainability measures, including measures for water conservation

With that in mind, here are some tips on chemical-free cleaning

For sinks, shower drains and bath drains

Put protectors on these to stop anything other than water from going down them. Once a month, give each drain entrance a thorough clean. Use ½ cup of baking soda, a cup of vinegar and a few shots of washing-up liquid. Follow this with about a litre/two pints of hot (preferably boiling) water.

For showerheads

For your regular clean use vinegar plus two tablespoons of baking soda and four-five drops of washing-up liquid. Periodically, boost this with a chemical disinfectant (and possibly descaler).

For glass and mirrors

Use one part vinegar to ten parts water.

For tiles

If you’re still using tiling in the shower, then switching to a self-contained shower cabin will save you a lot of hassle. One of the major advantages of self-contained shower cabins is that they eliminate the need for tiling and hence the need to clean tiles.

With that said, if you’re currently stuck with them, try to keep your bathroom as well ventilated as possible. This will reduce the likelihood of mould getting a grip. For regular cleaning, use one part baking soda to two parts vinegar and ten parts warm water. Scrub thoroughly. 

If you see a touch of mould, switch to one part bleach to three parts baking soda. If you see serious mould, reach for the chemical cleaners immediately. Mould is not just a mild bit of dirt. It’s a major health hazard so treat it as such.

For most hard surfaces

Just use plain hot water, possibly with some vinegar. If hygiene is a major issue, then use chemical disinfectant.

For textiles and upholstery

You can often clean textiles and upholstery with plain steam. Then you can use the dirty water in your garden (or for houseplants). If your upholstery needs a bit more cleaning then try the following recipe:

1 cup water

½ cup white vinegar

½ tablespoon washing-up liquid

Spray (or brush) it on and leave it to sit for five minutes. Then work it into the fabric (using the same action as you do when you wash your hair). Wipe off any excess, spray with water to rinse and then leave to dry thoroughly.

For dishes and laundry

Use mild cleaners and very hot water. If you have the option, use concentrated cleaners to minimize packaging. Never use dryer sheets. These are horrendous for the environment in many ways. One of them is polluting the water supply. 

Air dry your clothes if possible. If you must tumble dry them, use dryer balls (or tennis balls) to speed up the drying time. If you want to add fragrance, get a regular cloth and add some essential oils

In the bathroom

  • Turn the water off when brushing your teeth
  • Rinse your razor in the sink
  • Use showers for everyday hygiene, keep baths for treats
  • Use a low-flow showerhead
  • If you use a bath, put the plug in straight away.
  • Keep your showers and baths as short as possible
  • Use a water-efficient toilet and/or block part of the cistern
  • Keep your toilet for human waste and regular toilet paper. Never use “flushable” toilet wipes unless the “flushable” claim is verified by a reputable authority. A lot of “flushable” toilet wipes take years if not decades to biodegrade.
  • Consider switching to a composting toilet

In the kitchen

  • Upgrade to water-efficient appliances
  • Try to load appliances fully before you switch them on
  • Use a dishwasher instead of washing by hand
  • If you do wash by hand, don’t rinse under running water. Just pour clean water over the stacked dishes.
  • Wash fruit and vegetables (if necessary) before you cut them. Then turn off the water.
  • Consider using an aerator. This generally makes more sense in kitchens than in bathrooms.
  • Avoid using waste-disposal units. Try to compost instead. If you can’t just put the waste in the landfill bin.
  • Keep reusable bottles of water in the fridge so you always have cool water available.
  • Only heat as much water as you need for food/drinks.
  • Eliminate food waste

There are all kinds of reasons why food waste is bad for the planet. One of them is that food production often uses significant amounts of water. This is particularly true for the production of meat and poultry, especially if the animals/birds are grain-fed. Plant-based foods tend to be much more sustainable but there are exceptions such as almonds and avocados.

In the garden

  • Think carefully before installing any kind of open water feature outdoors. 

It doesn’t really matter if it’s an ornamental pond, a hot tub or a swimming pool. The simple fact is that uncovered water will evaporate. This means that ornamental water features are best avoided. They’re also often a safety hazard to children, pets and wildlife.

Hot tubs, paddling pools and swimming pools often serve a practical purpose. The compromise here is to make sure that you keep them covered when you’re not using them. The added benefit of doing this is that it will generally lower your running costs and maintenance bills. This is particularly true of hot tubs.

  • Collect rain in butts
  • Use brooms instead of leaf blowers. Leaf blowers use a lot of fossil fuel.
  • Brush hard surfaces before you decide whether or not you need to hose (or pressure-wash) them.
  • Check for leaks in your outdoor water system (and hoses). You may not pick this up in your regular household checks.
  • Water by hand when possible.

If you must irrigate, position your sprinklers carefully so the water goes on the plants, not on hard surfaces. Keep your irrigation system well-maintained.

  • Water early in the morning.

This minimizes the loss of water to evaporation. You can water in the evening as well but this is riskier as it can encourage the growth of fungus and also attract garden pests like slugs. Try to avoid watering when it’s windy. Firstly, wind can blow water where you don’t want it. Secondly, it will speed up the evaporation process.

  • Only water when it’s necessary.

This may sound like stating the obvious but avoid the temptation of giving your plants a drink because they might need it. Check if they do. If necessary use proper moisture sensors.

  • Use mulch to contain moisture and control weeds.

Back this up with regular hand-weeding. Only use chemicals if you absolutely must. Getting rid of weeds is essential to making sure that your precious water goes on the plants you want, not unwanted invaders.

  • Try to stick with plants local to your area.

They will be adapted to the local conditions and will need minimal watering. If you must grow other species try to keep them in containers.

  • Group plants according to the amount of water they need.

This will help you to avoid drenching plants that don’t need (or appreciate) it while other plants go thirsty.

  • Make smart use of shade.

There are plants that need full sun. Many plants, however, will do perfectly well in semi-shade. In fact, quite a few prefer it. If you can give your plants some shade, you’ll limit evaporation from sun and wind. If you use trees and shrubs for shade, you’ll also help to soak up carbon from the atmosphere.

Taking care of your lawn

Lawns can need serious quantities of water but there are ways to have a great lawn without draining the planet dry. Start by choosing the right seed for your area and lifestyle

In particular, if you live in an area with minimal rain, choose a seed that is known to resist drought. When you’re (re)seeding your lawn do it the right way. There are plenty of articles on this.

Ease up on the mowing. Letting your grass grow too long will deprive it of vigour. Leaving it to grow up to 3”/7.5cm, however, is perfectly fine and will encourage the soil to retain water

Only water your lawn when it actually needs it. The easy way to check this is just to walk across your lawn and see how it responds. If the grass stays down, it needs water. If it springs back, it doesn’t.

For smaller lawns, use a watering can instead of a sprinkler. Test the lawn as you walk around it and only apply the water where it’s needed. This may be the whole lawn but often it will only be parts of it

Do your watering in the early morning and when you do apply water apply it thoroughly. The water needs to soak right down to your lawn’s roots to do any good.

On that point, make sure that you understand the theory and practice of aeration. This serves two purposes. Firstly, it makes sure that water can reach the roots of your grass. Secondly, it makes sure that excess water drains away.