Water wars

Never mind oil, says CIWEM Executive Director, Nick Reeves, water could be the cause of the next global conflict

Certain cheesy-grinned weather forecasters continue to tell us that “there is only a small risk of rain” even though they know full well that the risk of no rain is much greater – and is something we all need to worry about. In these days of global warming, we should be praying for the stuff.

Despite a cold, grey winter, some of our reservoirs are running low. And Southern Water has been granted a licence to divert water from the Medway to Bewl Water Reservoir. Nearly 4M people have been living with a hose pipe ban since last summer. Climate change and ever increasing demand are creating an alarming situation. And the Environment Agency has warned that unless there is heavy rainfall soon, drought measures will have to be put in place across southern England.

The public has only just got used to the idea of a looming energy crisis, a fisheries crisis, melting glaciers, endangered species and an affordable-housing problem. Now, we have dire warnings on water. And suddenly water is big business as well as being a big global issue. City suitors are set to buy British water companies in the belief that a scarce water resource will soon be worth a lot of cash, as the reservoirs run dry and public demand grows.

Desertification is gathering pace as parched Portugal and southern Spain lost millions of acres of woodland to forest fires. Across Europe, farmers are moving from water-hungry crops to those that thrive in hotter and drier conditions. The spectre of global warming is growing and there is little reason to believe that things won’t get worse.

We are, after all, hard-wired to profligate consumption and water waste. Globally, £50B a year is spent on new water resources. Those in the know say it’s not enough and that it should be doubled. There is a crisis, it’s global and it’s local.

Government has announced that all new homes must have water saving devices that will reduce consumption by 20%. Fine, but it’s not enough. Voluntary building codes on water efficiency must become mandatory and all existing properties must be water efficient too. Unless we can reduce consumption by nearer 40%, we will be in serious trouble. Meantime we must ask: just how sustainable is the Sustainable Communities Plan when development in southern England has already breached environmental limits?

Over time, we have come to find more ways of using water. Agriculture is a huge consumer. Around 38,000 litres is needed to produce the grazing required for a pound of beef. On a domestic level, it is estimated that we are using 3.8 litres a day more per person than we did ten years ago, and that we use twice as much as we need to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

What to do then? Well, metering – with safeguards for the least well-off – can make a difference. Although the wealthy will always pay for their profligacy. When residents on the Isle of Wight were metered, consumption fell by around 10% – and yet only around one in four of us have meters.

Arguments for a National Grid for water just don’t wash it would seem, but are a sign of the increasingly desparate position we face. Water is heavy stuff and the cost of pumping it around the UK would be astronomical and consume a lot of energy besides. No, the vital measures we need are to increase investment, cut waste and reduce leakage. The £3B spent by water companies on improving delivery is simply not enough.

A quarter of all water supplies is lost through leakage and, although the water companies are doing all they can, conflicting pressures from regulators and from shareholders means that they are not yet investing enough. But, for now, water supply problems in Britain only means parched gardens and dirtier cars. Elsewhere in the world, millions die for the want of clean accessible water, and tensions about supply and ownership are vastly more serious. They are matters of life and death. The possibility of water wars is very real and it may take conflict over water elsewhere to shake us out of our complacency in the UK.

Egypt is alarmed by Ethiopia’s damming and abstraction activities on the upper Nile. Millions of people in both countries depend on the river for their survival. Similar conflicts exist around the Zambesi with Zimbabwe and Mozambique bickering over rights of access.

News that Africa’s Lake Chad is disappearing fast because of increased water demand and irrigation, and because of global warming, is shocking. It is yet another example of the damage we do. In the last 40 years, the lake – once one of the world’s largest – has shrunk from 23,000km2 to just 900km2,

forcing maps of Africa to be redrawn.

At last, we have come to understand that oil and gas are scarce and finite resources. We must hope that very soon we also learn to understand that water, too, is a precious commodity, and to value it more. In the UK, if we truly value our environment and the rivers and waterways that nurture it, we can no longer plunder them at will to satisfy our insatiable desire for clean cars and ever-green garden lawns.

It behoves us all, and governments, to think more strategically about water supplies. Most of us will surely have to pay more for water and use less of it.

We will need to capture and store more, even in our own gardens and in our public parks. We must learn to recycle household spill-off for irrigation of plants and lawns.

Unless we want to see rivers vanish from the landscape – as some have vanished already – we must forget reckless abstraction that is tolerated now. It’s time for a blue revolution in water use.

Compared with many countries, we Brits are fortunate. Mis-government, poverty and lack of investment elsewhere have led to water shortage and conflict. But 20 years from now, we may wonder why we complained about rainy days. And we may yet look back with nostalgia when we believed – like the air we breathe – that water was a free and limitless resource.

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