2023 January Water Watch

Rain barrel used to irrigate a side raised bed. Photo by R. Last.

If more houses had water barrels, it could help with drought, flooding and water pollution

Earlier in 2022, southern England experienced its driest July on record. The drought affected many parts of the UK and grew so acute that Thames Water’s hosepipe ban will remain in force into 2023. But rainfall in August 2022 was heavy. The volume of rain caused outdated drainage and sewerage systems to overflow, degrading the quality of many of the UK’s rivers. Extreme weather patterns such as these are set to dominate our future. Research by Community Action for Water suggests that collecting rainwater in water butts may offer a solution to these problems. This cheap, small-scale intervention could help protect households against water risks while engaging those involved with water issues. Unfortunately, the government tends to ignore this scale of intervention. Water management in England is largely isolated to large infrastructure projects. Reservoirs are built to withstand drought and larger sewers are seen as the solution to flooding and water pollution. These approaches are costly (Central London’s new sewer will cost £4.3 billion), can damage the environment, and they fail to engage the public. There are other ways to manage the UK’s water better. The roof area of an average terraced house in the UK (30m²) receives 19,000–55,000 litres of rain each year. Our modelling suggests that a significant proportion of household water consumption could be met by collecting this water. Averaged across the UK, we found that a 210-litre rain tank – equivalent to a small bath – could supply 15% of a household’s total annual water consumption. But this will be subject to clear geographic and seasonal variation.

Clip art illustration of a watering can pouring water on a seedling in a pot. Shutterstock stock illustration ID: 85170565.

Water for Food Systems and Nutrition

Access to sufficient and clean freshwater is essential for all life. Water is also essential for the functioning of food systems: as a key input into food production, but also in processing and preparation, and as a food itself. Water scarcity and pollution are growing, affecting poorer populations most, and particularly food producers. Malnutrition levels are also on the rise, and this is closely linked to water scarcity. Achieving Sustainable Development Goals 2 (End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture) and 6 (Ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all) are co-dependent. Solutions for jointly improving food systems and water security outcomes include:

  1. Strengthening efforts to retain water-based ecosystems and their functions;
  2. Improving agricultural water management for better diets for all;
  3. Reducing water and food losses beyond the farmgate;
  4. Coordinating water with nutrition and health interventions;
  5. Increasing the environmental sustainability of food systems;
  6. Explicitly addressing social inequities in water-nutrition linkages; and
  7. Improving data quality and monitoring for water-food system linkages, drawing on innovations in information and communications technology (ICT).

Climate change and other environmental and societal changes make the implementation and scaling of solutions more urgent than ever.

Stock image on Pexels.

Optimising the water we eat—rethinking policy to enhance productive and sustainable use of water in agri-food systems across scales

Sustainable and resilient food systems depend on sustainable and resilient water management. Resilience is characterised by overlapping decision spaces and scales and interdependencies among water users and competing sectors. Increasing water scarcity, due to climate change and other environmental and societal changes, makes putting caps on the consumption of water resources indispensable. Implementation requires an understanding of different domains, actors, and their objectives, and drivers and barriers to transformational change. We suggest a scale-specific approach, in which agricultural water use is embedded in a larger systems approach (including natural and human systems). This approach is the basis for policy coherence and the design of effective incentive schemes to change agricultural water use behaviour and, therefore, optimise the water we eat.

Credit: Pixabay

Study sheds light on how PFAS ‘forever chemicals’ travel in groundwater

A large family of chemicals used for decades to improve our lives—from nonstick cooking pans to waterproof clothing—are now known as “forever chemicals” because they do not easily break down in the environment and pose potential health risks as they build up in our bodies. A new study may improve our understanding of how these chemicals move in the groundwater, according to a team of scientists. “These chemicals, called PFAS (per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances), are extremely useful, so they have been used everywhere,” said Kalle Jahn, a researcher at the United States Geological Survey, who conducted this work as a doctoral candidate at Penn State. “Unfortunately, at the smallest molecular level, they just don’t break down further in the natural environment. If they get released, they just hang around and can bioaccumulate in fish and other animals and eventually in us.” The scientists studied one such chemical, perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS), that made its way into groundwater near a former firefighter training center in Center County, Pennsylvania. PFOS is a common element in firefighting foams, and was used for decades at the fire training site. The chemical was not regulated at the time. PFOS molecules are hydrophobic and will attach to organic carbon, and variations in the organic carbon in the bedrock aquifer may influence concentrations of the chemical in groundwater, the scientists reported in the journal Groundwater. “Kalle’s work highlights an important consideration for modeling the groundwater transport of PFOS and similar compounds,” said Katherine Freeman, Evan Pugh University Professor of Geosciences and Jahn’s adviser at Penn State, who is a co-author on the paper. The article goes on to detail how the scientists detected two peaks in concentration of the PFOS plume, and what that means for ongoing water remediation. (See also: PFAS: you can’t smell, see or taste these chemicals, but they are everywhere—and they’re highly toxic to humans)

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