Why are we still “in drought” after all this rain?
Over the past few months, we (or at least those of us in London and the Southeast) have all become more aware of our water usage. A barrage of posters and news reports have seen to that, informing us that the country is now in drought after two of the driest years on record. Water usage has now become a hot button issue as Britons approach the summer with depleted aquifers, despite the wettest April in a century.
I myself have become aware that I’m a huge water waster. I never turn off the tap while I’m brushing my teeth, I’m partial to baths when they’re on offer – although a quick shower normally suffices – and until recently, I’ve been guilty of not using a dishwasher. But now, a regime of ‘water-sterity’ rules – even with the flooding in Tewkesbury making headline news – and we all need to tighten our belts, or taps, and make sure we use less water.
Even if everyone shaved using a shallow basin of reused water, it doesn’t seem likely that Britain would be out of drought. According to an ONS report released in 2006, London’s population will jump from 7.8 million to 8.8 million by 2029, and increased pressure on the country’s (already strained) water supply is inevitable.
But why is the country still “in drought” after all this rain? Part of the reason is due to depleted aquifers, vast reservoirs of underground water stored in porous rocks that feed our rivers and streams. The dry climate for the past two years has dried out the soil and made it impermeable; even though there has been a lot of rainfall in the last month, much of it cannot seep through the hard ground and into the water table.
This has had a devastating effect on rivers. One of the posters that have been distributed around the country by Thames Water, the biggest water company in the UK and one that introduced hosepipe bans back in April, shows a dry riverbed overlaid with bold white text proclaiming “We Are In Drought”. The river in question is the Kennet, long famed as a “chalk stream” with clear water and fine salmon fishing. Along its upper reaches, bullead and trout flourish, while the banks buzz with rare wildlife such as the Scarlet Tiger Moth. But according to the environmental pressure group Action River Kennet, the river also provides 19 million litres per day to Thames Water.
The company insists that the two years of dry weather are responsible for the low levels upstream on the Kennet, the sort of situation photographed. When I asked Simon Evans, the Media Relations Manager at Thames Water about what effect the company’s borehole at Axford had on the West Overton location photographed, he replied:
“Absolutely none.” He explained that because the borehole is downstream, it does not affect the West Overton area.
But the borehole – a well of sorts out of which water is pumped – became the focus of controversy when in 2004 an Environment Agency report claimed it was “over abstracted” by Thames Water. The company has since pledged to reduce abstraction levels by 30 per cent and has undertaken a conservation project to preserve wildlife on the Upper Kennet, although the WWF criticised them recently again for over-abstraction.
The Axford borehole mainly supplies South Swindon (and, to a lesser extent, Marlborough and Ramsbury) with drinking water. Another source of controversy is that the water pumped out of the Kennet to Swindon is not pumped back into the river’s catchment area (the area from which the water flows back into the river), and Evans conceded that this “must have a potential impact on the river”.
So it’s not simply a case of saving water at home, although it would go a long way towards helping the situation. The Green Party highlighted ‘mismanagement’ when it criticised water companies for the lack of “effective action” on water loss since the water was privatised in the 1980s. Much of their criticism was targeted at leaks, which are, admittedly, hard to tackle, but there are several ways that the water companies could help the situation.
One is by devising ways of pumping recycled and treated waste water back into the drainage basins of rivers. Another, however, must be undertaken with their customers’ consent – installing water meters at family homes to incentivise reducing water consumption and wastage. In fact, such a decision could save families’ money according to price comparison and switching website uswitch.com; they argue that a “typical” water customer saves 5-10% when they switch to a meter.
Such decisions are difficult to make and enforce with so many competing water companies in the frame, and greater regulation or even nationalisation could provide for better decision-making. Water companies are not going to make decisions that are commercially unviable, so their options are limited; as with financial services, more oversight is needed to ensure that companies are fulfilling their responsibility to the people they serve and the environment around them.
For this year, it’s too little, too late. Even if it rained every day for the next two months, the aquifers are at such low levels that parts of the country will still be in drought this summer.
“I think we will be in drought for a while – what we need is solid winter rainfall to seep into the porous rocks”, says Evans.
But hoping for rain is not enough. The water companies and the population both bear responsibility for making sure we are not in the same situation next year and far into the future.Tagged in: drought, hosepip ban, water
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