By Tim Smedley
Despite its rainy reputation, the UK’s water reserves are seriously strained – and its insatiable demands are putting pressure on other countries too
When it comes to water scarcity, the last place on Earth you’d think of is rain-soaked England. Winter here is cold and wet. It rains for what feels like weeks on end. Lawns squelch with saturated soil and garden water butts overflow, likely to be unused until April. The UK’s average annual rainfall is a sopping 1200mm, compared to the 300s in Afghanistan, or just double-figures in Egypt.
In the South-East of England, the average annual rainfall lingers around 500-600mm – drier than South Sudan, or Perth, Western Australia
Yet within a few short months, significant parts of the UK will be staring down the barrel of empty water butts. Much of that four-figure average rainfall is propped up by the rainy highlands of Scotland, Wales and Northern England. In the South-East of England, the average annual rainfall lingers around 500-600mm – less than South Sudan, or Perth, Western Australia. This also happens to be the UK’s most populated area, packing some 18 million inhabitants into just 19,000 sq km (the size of New Jersey), including its capital, London. And this region is drying up, fast.
Last year (2018) saw six consecutive months of below average rainfall in England, causing many reservoirs to run dangerously low. This was no ‘one off’ event. The previous year, 2017, saw the driest 10-month period for more than 100 years.
The latest Government Water Abstraction plan shows that 28% of groundwater aquifers in England, and up to 18% of rivers and reservoirs, are unsustainably abstracted. Only 17% of England’s rivers are classified as being in ‘good ecological health’.
Yet much of the public remain oblivious to the problem. The majority (55%) of freshwater in the UK is abstracted for domestic, household use, compared to just 1% for agriculture. The average Brit uses 150 litres of water per day, through a combination of showers, high-flush toilets, dishwashers, washing machines, and garden hoses. Compare that to Cape Town, where annual rainfall also averages around 500mm yet residents’ usage is capped at 50-70 litres per day.
“People don’t see water as something we need to save… the [public perception is] we are a wet country”, sighs Hannah Freeman, senior government affairs officer for the charity Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT). “But the [latest] climate change projections say that the chance of dry summers is going to increase by up to 50%.” And warmer winters, too. The UK has just experienced its warmest February on record, with temperatures reaching 21.2C in London – the first time a reading above 20C had ever been recorded during the winter. Bemused Brits walked around in shorts and T-shirts and sunbathed in parks, when they would usually be wrapped up in scarves.
England offers a case study of how previously wet countries will have to wake up to a future of increasing water scarcity. Conor Linstead, an international freshwater specialist at WWF, says many countries are now “experiencing a water scarcity problem from over abstraction because they failed to give enough thought to water allocation mechanisms… exceptional droughts will become the norm under climate change”.
Sao Paulo, in Brazil – a country that boasts 12-16% of the world’s freshwater – incredibly almost ran out of water in 2014 during the worst drought in its history. The main reservoir for the country’s largest city dropped to just 3% capacity (far lower than Cape Town’s widely reported crisis in 2018, when official’s came perilously close to turning off the city’s taps if its reservoirs fell below 13.5% capacity). In August 2018, the mighty Danube river flowing through Hungary dropped to a record low of barely above half a metre, halting tourist cruises and freight shipping.
England’s London and Thames Valley region is classified by the UK Environment Agency as ‘seriously water stressed’. “We have relatively small water storage facilities”, explains Steve Tuck, abstraction manager for Thames Water, “which means we take from rivers and groundwater aquifers to supply the large population.” He admits this system is “a little hand to mouth”. High rainfall in winter should sufficiently top up the aquifers and slowly seep out into the rivers during summer. But over-use by households coupled with a growing population and less frequent rainfall has led to “an exacerbation” of the problem, Tuck admits.
Thames Water has even invested in the UK’s very first desalination facility in the Thames estuary to provide London with an additional 150 million litres of drinking water a day. “Another option is to potentially transfer water across from the River Severn, water that ultimately comes from the Welsh mountains, and transfer that [by pipeline] to the Thames”, says Tuck, which raises the prospect of the thirsty south sucking the rest of the UK dry…