Drought and our most finite yet undervalued resource
The flow of events last week was turbulent and at times perplexing! Whilst over 20 million customers across 7 water companies face the drought order of a hosepipe ban, 400,000 homeowners in the north were recovering from powers cuts associated with heavy snowfall. These events form part of what some columnists have coined the ‘global weirding’ phenomena.
For instance, during March England and Wales experienced 38 per cent of the long-term average rainfall. This was after the second warmest year on record. There is now growing concern amongst many in industry sectors regarding the drought situation. Some farmers in the ‘breadbasket’ of the country have planted 20% less crops this season because of water abstraction and irrigation restrictions. This is whilst many in the Lark Valley area have agreed to 20% voluntary reduction in their water use. It is thought that this will lead to consumer price inflation for key vegetable crops and make things problematic for the already pressing food agenda.
Instead of going with the flow, if we engage in some upstream thinking we find the source of our rivers, and indeed our problems. The dry winter and spring combined with over-abstraction has meant that many of our headwaters are dry. In March one of the River Thames tributaries, the River Chess, made Australian news as the river has remained dry since July 2011. Some private water supply boreholes have also failed in the Anglian region. From the local to the global, the situation is challenging, the River Grande is one of the WWF top 10 rivers at risk, and because of exploitation, it now often fails to reach the Gulf of Mexico.
Reduced water availability affects all our lives and the price we pay for our essential food and services. Albert Szent-Gyorgi, Nobel Prize winner, and the man credited with discovering vitamin C once stated that ‘water is life’s matter and matrix, mother and medium. There is no life without water.’
Therefore society’s key priority ought to be how we turn to this ‘matter’. If we step outside the mainstream we can see that water remains undervalued and this in turn exacerbates the crisis of our water commons. Per day we each use approximately 150 litres of water, in parts of the south east this is higher, at around 170 litres. By 2020 water demand could increase by 800 million litres.
What direct action can be taken to reduce consumption?
Monetary valuation is one means. The key problem is that society does not value water and this is problematic as we cannot manage what we do not measure. Furthermore the price signals which represent the scarcity of goods and incentivise conservation are absent and often distorted for water.
The evidence base to support valuation and metering is large. Those properties that are metered use less and are likely to pay less for their water. A report by the Environment Agency Water resources in England and Wales – current state and future pressures found that on average homes with a meter use 13% less than those unmetered. If we consider the fact that public water supply accounts for about half of the water taken from our environment and that only 30% of households are metered, we then realise that if everyone was metered, huge amounts of money and water could be saved.
Sometimes it important to step out of the mainstream and value water for the precious finite resource that it is. Collectively there is now an understanding that the economy is nature’s business and this liquid asset is becoming highly valuable and politicised. For instance during last year’s drought Guto Harri, Boris Johnsons director of communications, stated that ‘Wales should look to water in the same way as the Arabs look at oil: as a saleable commodity’. Indeed water from the Welsh valleys is valuable stuff; it supplies some of the UK’s key cities including Liverpool, Birmingham and Coventry, it is their economic ‘matter and matrix’.
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