It’s only February and already a drought is forecast for many parts of England with farmers predicting a shortage of key crops and rising food prices as a result. Whatever your views on man-made climate change there is no doubt that our weather is changing; the eastern region, for example, has had only a quarter of its average February rainfall. But apart from the lack of rain, it’s also the case that, as a country, we are hopeless at storing and conserving our water resources. Last year I went to the Alpujarras region of southern Spain where the locals use an ingenious system of water-channels called acequias (first built by the Moors) to irrigate their terraced fields. They also have a widespread network of water tanks, both covered and open, called albergas, which allows them to harvest water during times of plenty and use it up over the hot dry summers.
By contrast, farmers in the UK store very little water. Almost all irrigation comes from local rivers and streams and this has been growing by 2 per cent annually, leading to amenity and wildlife problems in the lower reaches of watercourses. Farmers need to be encouraged to build on-farm water tanks, like the albergas system and they need to be doing it now. Of course, the NFU blames a lack of subsidy and a bureaucratic planning system for this failure to respond to changes in climate.
The housing sector also has a responsibility to think more seriously about water conservation and longer-term climate change. Do you remember the old “Brick in the Cistern” advertising campaign? We need to be getting across the message that water is as precious as air and food – encouraging tenants to use water wisely and using grey water to on their gardens. Apparently, we all use 145 litres each day, and a typical house roof could harvest 85,000 litres of rainwater each year.We also need to look more seriously at building grey water systems into new and existing homes and providing free water butts for sheds and outbuildings.
In the longer term, our response to climate change requires a clear vision and a strategy. I wrote about this five years ago in a report called “The Future is Unwritten – Looking towards 2050”, which was launched at a CIH Eastern conference (available on request!). In the future, it is likely that more people will die of heat than hypothermia, so this means “cooling” our properties using heat-absorbing and reflecting materials, and creating cooler sitting out areas, perhaps with water features. Subsidence could become a bigger problem and we could experience flash flooding and gustier winds. Our housing stock will need to be able to cope with more extreme weather, so asset management strategies need to be re-written. New homes in flood plains could incorporate undercrofts so that they can cope with rising water.
On a positive note, we can expect balmier temperatures and lower fuel bills as temperatures rise. But doing nothing is not an option. Smart housing providers will be planning for these longer-term changes. Are you?