Many parts of southern England and Wales are facing drought conditions and bracing for emergency water measures, but the country receives more annual rainfall than anywhere in mainland Europe .
Long spells of drizzle in Britain are known to mean we take water for granted, unlike some warmer countries. But as the climate warms and we become drier, that will no longer be possible. So how did we get here and what can politicians, businesses and individuals do to alleviate the drought?
Before I tell you not to let the tap run while you brush your teeth and start taking two-minute showers, it’s important to note that water companies leak an amazing amount of water through their creaky old infrastructure. A recent analysis by The Times found that water companies were wasting up to a quarter of their supply on leaks. Campaigners say that since privatization a lot of money has gone to water company shareholders instead of being spent on improving infrastructure. Moreover, the problem lasted so long that the leaks became more and more expensive and complicated to repair.
The industry says it is trying to change things. Stuart Colville, director of policy at trade body Water UK, said: “[Water] the companies have pledged to halve leaks by 2050 – building on recent data showing some of the lowest levels of leaks ever recorded – and to help customers do their part.
Stop personal waste
That said, the British use a lot of water. The average citizen consumes far more than most Europeans – typically around 150 liters per day per person, compared to 128 in France, 130 in Spain and 122 in Poland. Only three countries consume more per capita: Greece, Bulgaria and Italy, which comes first with more than 200 liters per day.
Mark Lloyd, CEO of Rivers Trust, has campaigned to persuade people to stop using high-quality tap water for things like washing their cars and watering their gardens. Instead, he says people should have water harvesters and the government should launch a public information campaign to reduce usage.
He says: “We have a stubbornly high per capita utilization rate, which is one of the highest rates in Europe and not decreasing. The government has set targets to reduce this and has not yet specified how it will do so. We need fundamental behavioral change, and new homes need to be built to be water efficient and energy efficient. »
Ofwat, the water regulator, suggests people use washing up bowls instead of running the tap all the time, wait until they have a full load before doing laundry, and water plants with them. used waters.
Release the beavers
Part of the problem in the UK is that we have historically drained our rather wet land to improve the prospects for agriculture and infrastructure. We have also straightened our rivers and stopped flooding around them – removing wetlands – which is not only terrible for nature, but also causes water to flow rapidly downstream, causing flooding when it rains heavily and droughts when it does not rain.
A furry rodent might hold the answer; beavers build dams, creating wetlands and slowing the flow of rivers, storing water in the landscape. There are a few closed release trials in England, as well as free-roaming beavers in Scotland and parts of southern England. Activists want the government to allow the release of enterprising animals across the country.
A spokesperson for the Beaver Trust explains: “We urge the government to prioritize water security and accelerate the reintroduction of beavers to watersheds in a low-cost, restorative and community-based approach. on solutions to mitigate the devastating effects of drought and fires.”
Well, they would say that. But one farmer, Chris Jones, has found that the presence of beavers on his land in Cornwall has shielded him from the worst effects of the recent drought.
He tells us: “What the beavers have done is they have built a whole series of dams which all store water. They help keep the area of land adjacent to the watercourse moist and drought resistant.
“The beavers have reconnected the stream to the floodplain, so you have all these little streams running through the land where there was no water before. Now ponds are forming behind the dams, accumulating water reserves in the land.
Farm more sensibly
British agriculture is used to using water unsustainably, taking water from rare chalk streams to irrigate crops and growing many water-intensive crops in the drier parts of the country – for example potatoes, which are very thirsty plants, in East Anglia.
Farmers could be encouraged to create reservoirs on their land so that they can farm without having to irrigate as much. They might even sell their water to water companies in times of drought. We produce food, so why not water too? Considering what we grow and where we grow it could also help to use water more efficiently in the future.
Kelly Hewson-Fisher, National Water Specialist for the National Farmers Union, says, “The prolonged dry spell we have experienced so far in 2022 highlights the urgent need for the government and its agencies to work with the agricultural and horticultural sector. better plan and manage the country’s water resources to help build resilience and provide opportunities for investment in irrigation equipment and to build more on-farm reservoirs. In addition, approaches to flood and drought risk management need to ‘join up’, be more innovative and ambitious. This would allow farmers to have access to a secure supply of water for food.
Get the government to act
New legislation is needed to ensure that water companies clean up their law and that water is used more sensibly across the country. Water UK has suggested a new Rivers Act to hold companies legally accountable for commitments made in the 25-year environmental plan. This would legislate water wastage and ensure that rivers do not run dry.
NGOs, including the Rivers Trust, believe the government should do more campaigning to get people to reduce their water use. It is also hoped that the next government land use strategy will take water into account and suggest that thirsty crops should not be grown in areas where there is not much rain, for example.
The government could also legislate to make homes more water efficient and set strong targets for new developments.
A dripping faucet turned off helps but does not solve systemic issues that cause dryness. Perhaps the recent heatwave will give policymakers food for thought – ultimately it will be their decisions that will determine whether Britain faces the next hot, dry summer.