Parts of Britain once again face uncertainty over water supply after a second consecutive dry winter. An official state of drought has been declared for most of southern and eastern England. The media are dredging up old “crisis” related stories, with warnings of hosepipe bans, pictures of dried up reservoirs and stock footage of standpipes in the streets. There’s no sign of any effective action to deal with this lack of water, and certainly nothing like a national solution.
The government hosted a “water summit” on February 20 to find out how to deal with the drought. Predictably, no solutions emerged. Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman was left to mouth platitudes about using less water and getting used to drought as the norm.
At the same time the Environment Agency issues regular flood warnings in parts of the north and west of the country. In other words, there is too much rain in one part of the country and not enough in another. That pattern is not new; it describes both the problem and a potential answer. The idea of conveying water from where it is overabundant to where it is scarce isn’t new either.
Detractors argue that as water is heavy, unlike gas and electricity, and cannot be compressed, it is therefore expensive to move. The experience of Yorkshire Water since the 1995 drought illustrates the emptiness of that argument. Facing a catastrophic shortage of water in that year, due in part to failure to maintain leaking pipes, it embarked on a laughable publicity campaign to persuade people to use less. The chairman famously urged customers to take a bath with a friend, then suggested an alternative – evacuating Bradford. The public outcry was so intense that YW had to bring water in from Kielder Water in Northumberland by tanker, at a cost of £3 million a week at its height.
Lessons were learned. The region now has an elaborate network of pipes whereby water can be moved easily from any part of the area to any where supplies are short. Though expensive to construct this grid, it would have been more expensive not to. The Institution of Civil Engineers echoes this sentiment, calling for a water network, similar to the national electricity grid, to help move water to drought areas.
Piping water from wet north to dry south has seemed like a good idea to a long line of people, most significantly the Water Resources Board, which used to look after what was then regarded as a national resource. It compiled a major report in 1973 recommending all kinds of infrastructure to aid the trickle-down: building fresh-water storage barrages in the Ouse Wash and Morecambe Bay; using canals to move water; extending reservoirs and building new aqueducts and tunnels between river basins. A year later, the Board was disbanded, replaced by regional water management bodies. The regional split was hardened by privatisation in the 1980s and remains so despite consolidation of water company ownership.
John Rodda, former director of hydrology and water resources with the World Meteorological Organization explains: “…there is no attempt to consider the national resources in a holistic way. There is no national plan…because the emphasis is always on each river basin providing resources that are used in that particular area.”
The nub of the problem is rejection of anything that looks like a national solution to a national problem. Profit-orientated companies like Yorkshire Water can see the wisdom of a grid, so why is the government so blinkered? ■