consumerism environment

Why do we have droughts in Britain?

This weekend I was reading our local Luton paper, and columnist Steve Lowe was writing about the drought. Or the “phoney drought” as he calls it. “I cannot believe there can be another country in the world where it rains so much but we apparently don’t have enough water to hose our gardens” he grumbles, and then starts attributing blame: “I do not trust the water companies or their motives and I think that the politicians, the green lobby and the media are letting them off the hook. They have failed abysmally in their targets for stopping leaks, building new reservoirs and sharing water.”

Lowe has a solution of course. “What we need to do is stop accepting this drivel and start complaining a bit more”. Because of course that’s just what Britain needs, more whingeing. He then spends the rest of the column whining about privatisation, water meters and the price of water.

I mention Lowe’s comments in a little detail because they’re typical of the sorts of things I’m hearing regularly at the moment. As I’ve said before, we’re totally disconnected from the realities of our environment, we have a massive sense of entitlement over water, and we don’t understand why we have droughts.

We could do with understanding a little geography for starters. Just because it’s raining today doesn’t mean there isn’t a drought. And yes, you can have floods and drought at the same time. (They often go together, because rather than being absorbed, the rain runs off the dry and compacted ground.) Floods are caused by extreme weather events, while droughts are a consequence of weather patterns. We’ve got floods because we’re experiencing a very wet April. We’re in drought now because we’ve had two very dry winters in a row. It will take a lot more rain than this to top up the chalky aquifers of South England.

As for hosepipe bans, Britain doesn’t experience shortages because it doesn’t rain enough, but because some parts of the country don’t have enough rainfall per capita at our level of water use. Hosepipe bans occur where there are too many of us using too much water. The average Briton uses 150 litres of water a day, and most years there is sufficient rainfall to satisfy our water profligacy. Sometimes there isn’t, and we fulminate powerlessly over it, blaming the water companies and the greens and the politicians. But it’s a simple equation. You can’t use what you haven’t got. There’s no conspiracy. If you want to shake your fists, Mr Lowe, shake them at the sky.

There are some complicating factors however. Britain’s population isn’t spread very evenly across the country. Some parts have more rainfall than they will ever use. Other parts are heavily populated and we’re going to get shortages sometimes. If we had a few billion to spare, we could build a national water grid to redistribute water around the country. Alternatively, you could redistribute the population instead. If he wants to be able to water his garden reliably, every year, Mr Lowe could always move to Northumberland.

There’s an infrastructure problem too. Because Britain was one of the first countries to have water piped to every home, our infrastructure is older than most. Many of our water mains leak and need fixing. Our reservoirs were dug at a time when the population was much smaller, and we could do with larger ones and more of them. The trouble is, that costs money, and we make big demands of the water companies. We insist that they upgrade their infrastructure while simultaneously demanding that water prices stay low. That’s the same impossible demand as requiring the banks to lend more while re-capitalising at the same time. There’s an old expression about cake that applies here.

Not that life was better before privatisation. It’s been a mixed experience, but for all the worrying about water company profits there has been real progress. Water regulator Ofwat calculates that since privatisation water quality, customer service and network pressure have all improved. There are fewer supply interruptions, leakage rates have improved by 35%, and bills are 30% lower than they would have been. The water companies have invested £95 billion since privatization, money that would otherwise have been from taxpayers and would currently be drying up in the government’s austerity measures.

If we want to see faster progress on water infrastructure, we do have options. We could stump up some taxpayer funding, or we could pay more on our bills. We could insist that the water companies stop paying dividends to their shareholders of course, but we should bear in mind that utilities are a favourite among pension funds. I presume that Mr Lowe has a pension somewhere.

Finally, water use has increased dramatically in recent decades. It has tripled since 1950. Do we really need to use 150 litres each, every single day? What on earth do we use it for? Would life be somehow unliveable if we used 100 litres a day? As the climate changes, we are going to face more extreme weather. Chances are there will be more droughts and more floods too. The easiest thing we can do to avoid water shortages in future is not to use so much in the first place.

So no Steve, I won’t take your suggestion to complain more. I’m going to do the opposite. I’d like to say that even with a hosepipe ban in place, I’m thankful that I have a reliable and abundant supply of some of the cleanest tapwater in the world.


  1. This is where we have so much to learn from developing countries… I will be blogging on this premise in the next couple of days based on my Live Below the Line experience.

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