Golf courses and washing machines: obstacles and opportunities for sustainable water management
Image © Fevi In Cayman
With 19 golf courses already and another 55 planned, Spain's Júcar River Basin offers the enthusiastic golfer a wealth of options. Unfortunately, good news for golfers can translate into a headache for water-resource managers. Put simply, the Júcar's courses devour huge amounts of water — typically 500 000 m3 annually for a single course. The accompanying influx of tourists demanding catering, showers and swimming pools inevitably puts an even greater strain on public water supplies — often at the times of year when resources are most scarce. In the context of the steadily drier summers brought on by global warming, the risks to water supplies and human wellbeing are potentially high.
At first sight, the obvious way to promote sustainable water use in the Júcar River Basin is to ban further development of golf courses. But matters are not that simple. Although a verdant golf course might look out of place in arid Mediterranean regions, it uses no more water than a comparable area of irrigated corn and yields a much better financial return. Turnover at the Júcar's courses is estimated at EUR 1.5–9 million annually and each has an average of 150 employees. With tourist numbers growing steadily, the arguments for turning farmland into golf courses can therefore appear quite compelling.
Complex drivers of public water use
Efforts to manage public water supplies sustainably face similar challenges and contradictions across Europe. As a recent EEA report 'Water resources across Europe – confronting water scarcity and drought' shows, economic and demographic changes can expand or diminish demand for water, sometimes in unexpected ways. And because access to water is closely linked to economic, social and environmental wellbeing, seeking to promote one element often impacts on the others.
Rising populations and shrinking households in Europe have both increased demand for public water supplies. But whereas households are expected to continue getting smaller, the EU-27 population is projected to stand roughly at today's level 50 years from now.
The relationship between income growth and public water use is more ambiguous. At low levels of national income, water use normally expands rapidly in response to rising earnings and standards of living. As countries become richer, however, households tend to become fully equipped with domestic appliances and the economy may shift away from water-intensive industries, meaning that demand flattens.
Technological developments also play a role, with improvements in appliances such as washing machines bringing large reductions in water use. The most efficient dishwashers, for instance, now use less water than washing by hand. At the same time, changes in lifestyle and habits, such as the desire for a green lawn during summer, can boost household water use. And, as noted above, tourism can impose huge extra demands on public water supplies not least because tourists typically use between two and five times more water than locals.
Opportunities for sustainable water management
With so much influencing public water demand, policies to reduce water use must clearly be multifaceted and responsive to local needs, while delivering the best possible economic and social outcomes. Encouragingly, research indicates where governments and citizens should focus their efforts.
- First, water pricing and metering have been highly effective in changing consumer behaviour in many countries. In England and Wales, for example, people living in metered properties use, on average, 13 % less water than those in unmetered homes.
- Shifting to modern domestic appliances or adapting existing ones can have a huge impact. Toilet flushing alone accounts for 25–30 % of domestic water use and simple fixes such as toilet 'hippos' can radically lower flush volumes.
- Investing in detecting and repairing leaks from public water systems is also important. In Denmark, for example, loss from leakage has fallen from more than 10 % in 1996 to 6–7 %.
- Raising awareness via education, information campaigns and eco-labelling schemes can play a crucial role in changing habits and lifestyles. In the context of tending gardens or irrigating golf courses, education facilitates the introduction of drought‑tolerant species and techniques to retain soil moisture, thereby reducing water demand.
The European Commission recommends that once countries have exhausted measures to reduce water use and increase efficiency they should consider drawing on non-traditional water sources, provided they are sustainable. Harvesting rainwater and reusing greywater (household wastewater other than that from toilets) to water gardens and flush toilets are two such sources that can significantly lower demand for public water.
In Cyprus, for example, a government-subsidised scheme to reuse greywater reduced per capita water consumption by up to 40 %. At a resort in Corsica, meanwhile, effluent is subject to lagooning and tertiary treatment by sand filtration before being used to irrigate the neighbouring golf course.
Adopting such practices more widely may allow regions like the Júcar both to guarantee sufficient water supplies and continue reaping the economic benefits of golf course development for years to come: good news for local people, water resource managers and visiting golfers alike.