Drought, Yet Again...
Rod Sturdy voices his opinion on the water shortage on the day that another 17 counties are officially declared as being in drought.
Last April proved to be dry and very warm. After a whole winter with the last significant rain – at least in my part of the world – in the previous December, we looked set for a significant shortage of water - yet again. I say this because the south of England is the most drought-prone area of the country.
I am writing this in early spring, April 2012 to be precise, and there has now been no significant rainfall here for the last two years. Rain-fed rivers are as low, or in some cases lower, than they were in the summer of 1976 and we are likely to experience one of the worst droughts in living memory. Any rain which comes now will be at the wrong time: it will be absorbed by vegetation or lost to evaporation. Chalk streams in particular, which depend on winter recharge of aquifers, are being annihilated. Having just experienced the third warmest March on record if lack of spring rain is accompanied by another hot spell then the situation with regard to rivers - and any other waters for that matter - will be dire.
The last time I fished the River Test, in early March, it had dropped to something like three feet below normal winter level and was falling by the day; this was in the lower river where some areas are anything up to twelve feet deep during normal flow. Although you might think there would be plenty in reserve, the missing depth represents a frightening amount of water. Some sections of the River Kennet, a highly-abstracted chalk stream if ever there was one, have all but dried up; the Lambourne is virtually gone; the Darenth, one of my local rivers and a key low-flow indicator, is already at typical July level.
You would think - in any sane, sensible country, that is – that the powers that be would have the situation under control, at least as far as human needs are concerned, let alone the environmental concerns. You would imagine that warnings of impending disaster would have been issued long ago, that hosepipes would have long since been banned, car-washes would have been closed down, the general public would long ago have been encouraged to ease back on the wet stuff that comes out of the tap and provision would already be in place for emergency movement of water to cover basic requirements. But none of these has been the case.
Then, suddenly, about three weeks ago, the media began rumbling about the impending drought. Impending? It should have been glaringly obvious to all and sundry a year ago, you would have thought. But you would have thought wrong. Thames Water is now at long last getting round to declaring the drought and hinting at the strong possibility of water shortages. Early this month Richard Aylard of Thames Water described a hosepipe ban, now at last reality, as a ‘sensible precaution’. Surely such a ban should have been imposed months ago, when at least the ‘precaution’ label would have been credible? Amazingly, it is only in the past three weeks or so that weather forecasters have mentioned the drought and consequently the desirability of rain, rather than referring to it in consistently negative terms.
Which brings us to an important point: the fact is that no-one but anglers and outdoor sportsmen, farmers and those who work in the countryside will really be aware of what is going on, that rivers are becoming depleted and that reservoirs are becoming drier by the day.
For the vast urban masses, rain is a curse which makes their lives awkward; there is no visible link between the rain that falls and the water which comes out of the domestic tap, just as there is often no perceived connection between the meat which appears in the supermarkets and animals on farms. Public perceptions of weather tend to follow the ‘wet-bad, dry-good’ line of thought and weather forecasts naturally enough follow suit. Even now references to the drought in forecasts are the exception rather than the rule. Nobody, least of all a weather forecaster, wishes to be seen as a bearer of bad news.
Then there is the long-term view. What have we as a nation done in terms of measures to guard against the consequences of drought? Precious little, is the short answer. We are so wasteful with water it beggars belief. Water companies themselves freely admit that millions of gallons of the stuff are wasted though leakage from faulty water mains. A figure quoted recently set the waste from pipes controlled by Thames Water at 665 million litres per day – a quite staggering figure, and one which makes the most profligate of hosepipe-wielders look positively angelic in comparison. It represents a loss equivalent to the volume of an Olympic swimming pool every five minutes, nothing short of catastrophic. Expressed another way, it is a leak rate of 25.7%, a record for water companies.
Other companies are not really much better, with an average of 17.7%. In fact, national leakage amounts to a staggering 3.3 billion litres per day. Water companies will not be slow to remind us that leakage used to be much greater and they have done a lot to reduce it. Germany has, in fact, managed to reduce wastage to only 9% so nobody can deny that there is still a long way to go.
Many years ago I remember that Yorkshire Water was the butt (no watery pun intended) of much humour for not having available any of the commodity it was supposed to be selling - worse than a pub with no beer, in fact. Despite the desirability of water metering to dampen demand, hardly any domestic consumer is on meter. Why? The likelihood is that anyone who switches to metered water will save money. If large households which use masses of the stuff incur large bills as a result, then so be it. In this respect it is no different from use of energy utilities. And what of plans for desalination plants? Forgotten, so it appears.
The fact is that south eastern England has less water available per head of population than Morocco and what have we done about it? Not a lot. The lack of political will to change our behaviour with regard to water is now gob-smackingly evident.
In the great drought of 1976, the best official advice for saving water was to ‘bath with a friend’. How far have we come since those days? Nowhere, it would seem.
Consumption of this most precious liquid per head of population is still much higher than it ought to be. The simple fact is that water consumption can easily be cut without the need for suffering, and by simple measures, as shown in a BBC television programme ‘Are We Drinking Our Rivers Dry?’ last autumn.
In an experiment involving an ordinary family lasting one week, a combination of self-discipline, awareness and simple gadgets were used to achieve a reduction of 49% in domestic consumption without hardship. So we could easily halve our typical consumption of 150 litres per head of population. Once again, Germany is well ahead of the UK in this area; public demand has been reduced significantly by raising public awareness and metering. Need I say more? A government which showed the political will to bring about such a situation would certainly get my vote.
As it is, my local water company has applied to abstract large amounts of water from the little River Eden in order to replenish Bough Beech reservoir and there are plans to top up the flow of the Itchen – a river which is not being too drastically affected by the drought – with water taken from the Test, which is very badly affected indeed. The Itchen just happens to flow through a Site of Special Scientific Interest. None of this makes much sense in the light of how easily the situation could be controlled, at least as far as domestic consumers are concerned, by straightforward policy changes.
Most rivers are in any case now – drought or no drought - at the very limit of what they can stand in terms of abstraction and the EA themselves have pinpointed at least 600 instances where abstraction is a threat to river flows. Most abstraction licences were granted a long time ago in an age when environmental considerations carried little weight. And if we assume – as seems quite reasonable – that demand for water is only likely to increase with a growing population and if we consider the most pessimistic climate predictions that droughts like this one will be much more frequent, then the whole scenario is nothing short of horrific. Rivers are clearly of little importance in the greater scheme of things; fish even less so. Grim as this all sounds, it at least clearly marks the battle lines for future campaigning.
Given that the vast bulk of water for domestic, industrial and agricultural use is taken from rivers it would make sense to push for universal metering. Payment by volume used would be an effective means of controlling demand. There is no point in urging people to use less and use it sensibly in times of drought only: this needs to be something which is practiced at all times. And given the likelihood that an increasing population will only push up overall demand, it has to be made into a high priority for governments which, as they always do, claim to be ‘green’. Water companies should also without a doubt be required to do their bit by repairing their disgracefully wasteful distribution networks.
There is a distinct lack of connectivity between water companies too and only 5% of water is currently shared. Anglian and Severn Trent are currently sharing the resource but it does not really go much further than that and strategic water agreements are conspicuous by their absence.
Then there is what I can only describe as the total failure to exploit times of plenty, in other words when rivers are overflowing and the land is flooded. As ever, the tendency is to get rid of floodwater as quickly as possible, instead of capturing it and either storing it for use or using it for aquifer replenishment.
Once these strategies are put in place we might achieve an equitable situation on both sides: adequate water for general use at all times and rivers with a healthy flow. It is an issue which anglers, chiefly through their membership and support of the Angling Trust, and other conservation-minded organisations, should be seen to be taking a high-profile role in.
This is yet another reason why I think you should join your sport’s representative body – so click HERE and do it now.
By the Same Author
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- Otters - This Far and no Further...
- Beavers and Us
- If I Really Wanted to Mess Things Up
- Drought, Yet Again...
- Angling Politics - There is no room for Complacency...
- Education, Education, Education...