Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The water shortage - it's serious

You may have seen the recent news that a number of water companies in the south and east are intoducing hosepipe bans from the beginning of next month. Seven companies are involved: Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Anglian Water, Sutton and East Surrey, Veolia Central and Veolia South East.

River Kennet January 2012

Comparisons are being made with the drought of 1976, but the state of our water resources now is worse than it was in March 1976. We already have reservoirs at low level [see picture gallery here], groundwater depleted, and rivers running low, or even dry (see photo above). The reason is that, in southern and eastern England, we've had two dry winters in a row - the winter months are when we expect to replensish water supplies.

In a Guardian article, people with different interests in the situation give their viewpoints. Robert Coleman, the senior manager at the RSPB's Titchwell Marsh nature reserve (near the Wash in north Norfolk) reports that the three main springs have run dry, for the first time in at least 30 years. He says:
The cornerstone of the whole reserve is fresh water. So far, we have just about managed by letting less water out to sea, but if it does not rain heavily soon it will all start to go very wrong in April and May when evaporation starts. Then the water levels will reduce, impacting on fish and wildlife. If the drought continues to May, there will be fewer insects, and the breeding birds will have less to feed on. By June the water levels will have dropped further and the wet areas will have started to dry out. By then the water voles will find it hard to get round the ditches and the moths and insects will be suffering. That will impact on the fish that feed on them and the birds, like the bitterns, which eat the fish. If the drought goes through to July, then Titchwell and much of the natural environment of eastern and southern Britain will be in trouble. If the ditches dry out, the fish will die and the birds will migrate or not breed. A lot of these birds are already under threat. It's only February, and we've had two dry winters running. It could be catastrophic.
Then a borehole driller tells the readers that he's rushed off his feet - the drought is definitely good for business. He says:
Yes, there's a drought but there isn't a water shortage. I'd say 90% of the water is lost in runoff. The problem is that the water companies have not invested in infrastructure. There's plenty of water around but they are not good at catching it when it rains. They mainly want to keep their shareholders happy. If the government wants to save water it should make the companies reduce their leaks. Twenty per cent of the water is just wasted.
This problem was reported long ago, when the water companies were first privatised - dividends for the shareholders are prioritised over investment in water conservation. The lack of care means that the runoff fails to replenish groundwater, which is already lower than normal. . . . and of course, an increase in the use of private boreholes further decreases this vital shared resource.
In the same article, a farmer explains the threats to our home-grown food supply if fields can't be irrigated, and a brewer details the effects on our beer supply!

This is localised at the moment - there's plenty of water in the north and west of England, and in Wales and Scotland, but moving large anounts of water around over large distances is both difficult and expensive. The predictions of local weather variation in response to global climate change are notoriously difficult, but one of the likely outcomes is more extreme variation. So we might well be looking at repeated drought in the south east and flooding in the north west. East Anglia is Britain's 'bread basket' so this is serious in the long run.

What can we all do, to conserve water and help our own gardens?
- If you have a garden, fit a rain diverter and water butts to your downpipes, and water your garden with this rainwater, not with tapwater
- If you have external accessible piping, fit a greywater diverter system
- Take shorter showers (3 minutes should be enough - even though the 'official' recommendation is 4 minutes) and maybe get a timer to help
- Fix dripping taps
- Install a water saving device in your toilet
- Turn off taps while you brush your teeth
- Only run washing machines or dishwashers when they're full

More information: http://www.hosepipeban.org.uk/

Further reading:
When The Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?  by Fred Pearce

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