Monday, May 29, 2006

Water: Drought in the U.K.

2006 seems to be a year for decade anniversaries: other than the oft applauded win of the World Cup by England in 1966, mostly of less than happy events. 40 years ago (also 1966) in the South Wales of my boyhood we witnessed the Aberfan Disaster, when a slag-heap "slipped" and engulfed a school wiping out, it is said, an entire generation. 20 years ago the unit 4 reactor exploded at the Chernobyl nuclear power station in what is now Ukraine. 30 years ago we had severe water shortages and fires, mostly caused by the extreme heat of the summer in 1976, and some by arsonists. Such was the extent of the drought that standpipes were introduced in some areas, the mains water was switched off and it was necessary to queue up with buckets to collect enough water for drinking, cooking and washing. Cars went about dirty, as the traditional British Sunday morning activity of "cleaning the car" wastefully with a hosepipe had to be suspended. Hosepipe bans had long been introduced by this stage of the season. Now it appears, we will suffer water shortages once again.
It is mainly the south east of England that will be affected, for various reasons. Number one is that about 20% of the entire U.K. population lives here, and accordingly the water demand is particularly high. Secondly, it doesn't rain that much in these parts, and both problems are compounded by the antiquated infrastructure used to deliver water. The latter is common throughout the country, but the pressures on demand in the south east are sufficient to lay bare the threads of the problem. Worst hit is Kent at "High Risk", with Greater London and its surrounds coming second in the "At risk" category. The rest of the country is at "Normal risk", so it's business as usual to the north and west of this corner of England. Wales, as I well remember is not short of rain: my childhood image of that neck of the woods is one of rain pouring down upon and running off grey slate roofs. I recall that the west country (Gloucestershire) where we moved to next was similarly provided with rain. I also remember the fresh green lushness and smell of the earth of both regions, especially after a good rainstorm, in those simpler times.
The aspect of "leakage" from the pipes used to transport water around the various parts of the country is very serious, since anywhere up to 25% of the water is lost en-route. This sums up to a total of 3.6 billion litres of water every day - a staggering total when one considers that in the U.K. each person uses an average of 150 litres, and so this amount of "lost" water would be enough to provide for 24 million people, or 40% of the entire U.K.'s population of 60 million. It could meet the water requirements of the south east of England twice over for that matter!
In all probability, if these holes in the infrastructure were plugged-up, there would be no water shortage, but to do so costs money, and therefore the price of water "at the tap" would increase. Since much water is used commercially, there would be a knock on affect in the price of other goods and services too, much as we shall see as we slide down the pricey edge of Hubbert's Peak, following Peak Oil, trumpeting out the age of cheap oil.
It is pretty much the same problem with providing that other essential: energy. The most cost-effective action would be to cut-back on waste, and implement energy efficiency schemes. We could easily use about half the water and less than half the energy that we do now, whereupon many of our problems would be eliminated: water shortages in the south east and the need to build a new generation of nuclear power plants, but some bizarre system of accounting always seems to get in the way of common sense; that and lack of clear elected leadership.

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