DROUGHT is to become a way of life and death in Britain if we are to take at face value an Environment Agency report published this week.
I imagine I’m not alone in wondering why these rain-sodden islands should be running short of Adam’s Ale.
Astonishingly, there’s less water available per person in Britain than there is in Spain or Egypt.
The report says that many parts of the country face crippling water shortages in the near future unless immediate action is taken.
It’s the ‘many parts’ that give a clue to what’s happening.
Very roughly, most of the rain that falls in the UK falls in the north west.
When Britain was being settled, most people came ashore in the south east. When they found out how wet it was elsewhere, they settled in Brighton and Eastbourne and left the sloppy bits to the Scots, Picts and Celts.
Rain also tends to fall more on the hills than in the plains. As a broad rule, the higher the hills, the more the rain. Guess where the hills are? The north west.
So the question is not how much rain falls on the British Isles, but where it falls.
You can’t blame people for trying to avoid the worst of the weather. The south east of the country has shown itself over the centuries to be sunnier, warmer, drier and less windy than elsewhere and it’s not unnatural to want to live there.
When this was a skinny tribe or two – the Atrabates, Regnenses or Cantiaci, for instance – it didn’t matter much.
But now there are millions of people, wall-to-wall from London to all points south, it matters greatly.
The problem is that we are profligate with water. We use more of it per household than virtually other country in Europe – 148 litres of it a day. The Environment Agency wants us to reduce this to 130 litres a day. It is right to ring the warning bells.
It wants compulsory water meters in every home in the next 20 years.
It wants more desalination plants – which extract salt and minerals from sea-water – on the southern and eastern coasts.
It wants water companies to be rewarded for selling less, not more, water.
Its Water Resources Strategy document warns that many rivers – particularly those in the South East – could be reduced at least to a half and possibly a fifth of their present flow by 2050 because of climate change.
The report warns that carbon dioxide from water and sewage treatments now accounts for 6% of the UK’s entire emissions output – more than that produced by our holiday jets which puts an interesting perspective on travel abroad.
Wetlands could dry out, underground water sources could shrink away and farms – traditionally heavy water users – could be parched out of existence.
We have just heard that our water bills are set to rise by 4.1%, well above inflation.
We will probably have to be more efficient at collecting rainwater. It’s not rocket science. The University of Huddersfield does it big-style already and we need to downscale that technology to domestic level.
In addition, ‘grey water’ – bath and washing machine water – can be used for toilet flushing and the kind of plumbing that can do that can be installed in new houses from tomorrow if we had the will and mind to do it.
The Environment Agency reminds us that in Australia its national drought began as a two-year anomaly. It is now in its 10th year.
It’s not impossible the same could happen here. We just don’t know when.