THE BLOG
12/03/2012 11:12 GMT | Updated 12/05/2012 06:12 BST

What's the True Cost of Water?

Sometimes, we just take it for granted that we can turn the tap on and there it is, but what happens when the rivers run dry? This may sound a little dramatic - but then, so does a UK drought and hosepipe ban in spring.

It's easy to forget just how precious water is. We all need it - every living thing on our planet relies on it and without it we would not survive. It's perhaps comforting to think of water as a renewable resource. Sometimes, we just take it for granted that we can turn the tap on and there it is, but what happens when the rivers run dry? This may sound a little dramatic - but then, so does a UK drought and hosepipe ban in spring.

We've had the driest two-year period in 90 years. At a time when flows should be at their strongest, rivers are low and some are drying up completely. The effects of low water levels can be devastating for wildlife and it will take many, many years for freshwater ecosystems to fully recover.

We're facing a water crisis driven by rapid population growth, economic development, shifting lifestyles and ever increasing demand for water. It sounds obvious but all the water we use comes from the natural environment and with each of us using on average 150 litres every day, our rivers are starting to feel the strain. The looming impacts of climate change will make this situation worse, bringing new uncertainty to rainfall patterns and river flows. Climate models suggest we'll see more floods and more frequent and longer lasting droughts.

Geography lessons about the water cycle has lulled us into thinking water is a limitless resource. But it's not because water is local. How much we have depends on local rainfall, local demand and local management systems. The south east of England has one of the lowest amounts of water per person in Europe - lower even than 'dry' countries such as Sudan and Syria. The current drought has been caused by a combination of low rainfall, our high demand for water and the outdated, unsustainable way we still manage water in the UK.

At February's drought summit, the Secretary of State for the environment Caroline Spelman said that that water companies, businesses, and people can all do their bit to save water, and of course she is right.

I think this concept of collective responsibility is a clear way forward in tackling the drought. But the government has a leading role to play to bring our water management systems into the 21st century. In its recent Water White Paper, the government recognised that the current system is not fit to deal with increased water scarcity. It set out some welcome and important proposals to develop a sustainable water industry, including vital reforms of water extraction rights.

But the fact is, in order to avoid a water crisis, we all need realise the true value of our water. Water metering is an essential component of this.

A switch over to water meters would save the country £1.5bn, address water poverty and help to reduce the huge amount of water waste (about a third of water extracted from the environment is wasted).

Fabian Society research has shown that the people believe that paying by meter is the fairest way to pay for water. With that in mind it seems crazy that we don't have a fully metered charging system. Yet there was a significant meter-shaped hole in the government's Water White Paper and - despite all the evidence to the contrary - government shied away from introducing the one policy that has been shown time and time again to save water.

So who is going to kick start changes that are absolutely necessary if we are to cope with drought and preserve our water supplies and rivers for years to come? WWF believes that this role firmly sits with government. The public agree - a recent WWF poll found that the majority of people felt that government was best placed to mandate a switch over.

Now is the time for government to send a loud and clear message about the need to value water, the importance of cutting waste and the important role that water meters play. How much do we have to lose before we start valuing the water we all need and use?