Informing future domestic water conservation policy

Sarah Cotterill pictured with Mid-Roscommon GWS manager, Noel Carroll, during a research visit with group water schemes in Roscommon.

An Fóram Uisce’s research project, ‘A Framework for Improving Domestic Water Conservation in Ireland Research Report’, has received a 2022 NovaUCD Innovation Award. The report’s lead author was Dr Sarah Cotterill, a lecturer at UCD’s School of Civil Engineering. In this article, Sarah discusses the research findings and the report’s policy recommendations to help achieve greater domestic water conservation in Ireland. The full report and policy brief can be read here


This summer has seen soaring temperatures and below average rainfall. In mid-July, the Phoenix Park weather station reached 33°C, one of the highest temperatures on record for Ireland and 8°C above the long-term average.

In the same month, almost half of all river monitoring stations observed below average monthly readings and over three-quarters of all groundwater monitoring stations were at ‘below normal’ or ‘particularly low’ levels. Furthermore, data from the European Drought Observatory suggests the south of Ireland in particular experienced a deficit in soil moisture levels.

Drought impact

Along with the reduced availability of water during a prolonged period of hot, dry weather, the temperatures encourage far greater household water use, often as much as 20% higher. This increase in water use can create additional stress on the supply systems when water levels are low, with potential risks to water treatment and supply, agricultural production, habitat degradation and catchment water quality.

To protect our water resources, water conservation measures are often required when there’s an extended dry period. Irish Water recently announced that whilst the vast majority of its 750 water treatment plants continued to meet the demand for water supply, 13 areas – in Counties Wexford, Kilkenny, Laois, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Clare – were affected by shortages.

Research

Last year, An Fóram Uisce commissioned research seeking to develop ‘A Framework for Improving Domestic Water Conservation’. The research suggests that there are societal, environmental and economic benefits to saving water, but one of the key barriers to addressing high water usage is the assumption that we experience high annual rainfall throughout Ireland.

Water resource availability varies across the country. The east typically receives 40% less rainfall than the west, yet the areas with the least rainfall are the most densely populated. The report states that, on average, Irish people use 133 litres of water each day but that most people have no idea how much water they are using.

Compared to other utilities, such as gas or electricity, the variation between minimum and maximum users of water is much greater. The research showed that when smart metering is implemented, household water use is on average 20% lower.

The importance of universal metering as a demand management tool, which has been highlighted in the rural water sector, is two-fold: consumer meters allow both excessive use and water loss through leakage to be identified within the network.

This not only contributes to water conservation, the impact can be seen across the whole system of treatment and supply, with reduced energy demand from pumping, prolonged life of infrastructure and improved water pressure to consumers.

Often people don’t realise the amount of energy and resources it takes for water to get to our taps, but a small change in water usage can lead to positive climate outcomes. The research suggests that a 20% reduction in water use across all Irish households could save hundreds of thousands of tonnes in greenhouse gases per year.

Policy recommendations

The report led to 10 recommendations for future policy, which include introducing a mandatory water efficiency label, updating building regulations for new builds, and exploring the co-benefits of water conservation in contributing to net zero carbon targets and in reducing wastewater flows.

Perhaps most importantly, the report calls for a complete rethinking of water education to support a bottom-up understanding of water. Behavioural change is one part of the solution, but there also needs to be better incentives for individual households and farms to introduce measures that allow them to save and store water.

This summer’s declaration of drought in England and predictions of mass crop failures, decreased milk production and early slaughtering of livestock serves to highlight how dependent our food production systems are on resilient water infrastructure.

Minette Batters, President of the National Farmer’s Union of England and Wales, recently suggested a “radical rethink” is required for managing water, considering options such as “pay[ing] farmers for storing water”.

By providing an incentive for farmers to put in rainwater harvesting, water can be stored and available for dry spells, whilst excess water can be captured in wet periods to ‘slow the flow’ and help mitigate agricultural run-off to nearby water bodies.

This article originally featured in the most recent edition of the Rural Water News magazine. To read the full edition and to sign up to our magazine mailing list, click here. To read more about water conservation and network management, visit our dedicated website section here.