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Water special: Coping with water shortages

How can we tackle annual droughts? ICE water panel chairman Michael Norton looks at the options

Water shortage is a problem that affects many parts of the UK and it will continue to do so unless we tackle the root of the problem.

Unfortunately, the solutions that could offer real respite in the future are not nearly as “sexy” as some of the solutions that tend to get media coverage.

Inevitably, when droughts are confirmed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency, the idea of a national water grid to transfer water to stressed areas is resurrected and debated.

Indeed, this has been the topic of many news items since the summit.

Water grid

A national water grid is not only impractical, both economically and environmentally, but also in reality is a major undertaking. Even if it were affordable, it certainly couldn’t be done any time in the near future, and between now and then the problem would only worsen.

The oft made comparison to the national electricity grid is illogical - water is a heavy, incompressible liquid, which requires huge quantities of carbon-based energy to move it. We cannot compare this to the passage of electrons along cables.

Regional transfers, using already established waterways, or interconnections across water company water systems, have more merit and may have a role to play in future.

Desalination is another technology that crops up at these times.

While desalination can be considered a solution for domestic water purposes, it is an expensive, high energy process, so has to be used only in the most extreme water-scarce locations.

Further, it is not affordable as a means of supplying water for growing food, which makes up the majority of water usage. In the UK, for example, our average water footprint is around 3,500l per day, and only 145l of this is household use. The majority is water embedded in the growing of food.

A more rational and measured approach would be for government, industry and society to take a strategic long-term approach to water management.

This means understanding all our water needs from drinking and sewerage to food and energy, and the sustenance of our ecosystems and biodiversity.

Appropriate response

And it means planning appropriate responses and interventions - taking actions to reduce demand in the first place, encouraging better and more imaginative methods of storing our plentiful winter water, and interconnecting our water systems where it makes sense.

Smart metering and low use fixtures could help, but will only be effective in driving down demand if water is priced highly enough to change behavior.

Currently, the average household spends only £1 a day on water; this needs to be addressed, with social tariffs to protect the poorest in our society. The challenge is to raise society’s awareness of the wider role played by water in the human biosphere, and by doing so raise the perceived value of water to us.

Government has recognised the value of water to society and for economic growth in the recent Water White Paper and this is very welcome.

However, we now need this to be followed through by decisive, rational and timely action if we are to avoid the spectre of drought becoming an annual event.

  • Michael Norton is chair of the ICE water panel and is leading on the ICE’s State of the Nation: Water report, due to be published later this year.

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