Report calls for strict controls as climate change threatens to dry up British rivers
Many parts of the country face crippling water shortages in the near future unless immediate action is taken to protect precious supplies, according to an Environment Agency (EA) report to be published this week. Measures include compulsory water meters in every home.
The EA warns in the Water Resources Strategy document that many rivers, particularly those in south-east England, could be reduced to a trickle in summer by the middle of the century because of climate change. On average, flows are likely to be cut by 50 to 80%.
As a result, the report urges that a series of key measures be introduced as a matter of urgency:
• A major review of funding of the water industry, so companies are rewarded for reducing, rather than increasing, the amount of water they sell.
• The construction of desalination plants at several sites round the country.
• Compulsory water meters for every household within the next 20 years.
At the same time, the report warns that carbon dioxide from water and sewage treatments now accounts for 6% of the UK's entire emissions output - more than the nation's aviation industry - and this needs to be cut urgently.
The authors also warn that some wildlife will be put under severe environmental stress and farmers will have far less water available for irrigation as climate change takes its grip. "Everyone will have to play a part in cutting water use," said Trevor Bishop, head of the agency's water resources policy. "It will touch all our lives."
The report's release coincides with news that water bills for Britain's 26 million households are to rise 4.1 %, taking the average to £342, compared with £285 at the start of the decade.
Ultimately, Britain should aim to cut each citizen's average daily use of water from 148 litres, one of the highest figures in Europe, to less than 130 litres, he added. To do that, a series of domestic measures will have to be introduced, including the redesign of houses so that they become fully water-efficient. For example, "grey water" - old bath or washing machine water - could be used to supply toilet flushes, while rainwater will need to be collected so gardens and parklands do not dry up in summer.
"Fresh water is a fragile and vulnerable resource," said Chris Smith, the agency's chairman. "Already there is less water available per person in England and Wales than in Egypt or Spain. If we fail to act now, we could face severe consequences such as water rationing, standpipes in our streets and the loss of wetlands and native wildlife."
The EA report uses the latest data to outline how England and Wales will fare as the world heats up over the next 40 years. "That data shows that the impact of climate change will be much more severe than was conceived only a few years ago," said Bishop. "At the same time there is still enough uncertainty to make it impossible to be absolutely sure about what measures to take."
Meteorologists say climate change will lead to more frequent bouts of heavy downpours and heavy flooding in Britain over the next four decades. However, the overall effect will be to reduce the amount of water available in rivers in England and Wales.
Among the worst affected will be the Lee, Colne, Medway and Stour in south-east England, where population and temperatures are both destined to rise more sharply than in other areas. In addition, many aquifers - underground stores of water - are likely to dry up as average rainfall figures drop.
As a result, the report urges that water meters be installed throughout Britain to minimise waste and that a number of desalination plants are built. Britain's first is under construction at Beckton, east London. It will cost £200m, produce 140m litres of water a day - enough for a million Londoners - and will run on biofuel, including recycled fat and oil from restaurants and homes.
"We will need a number of these, but I don't envisage them being built every 50 miles round the cost," added Bishop. "They will form only a part of our approach to water policy."
Forecasters expect climate change to occur in slow, incremental steps. However, there is no guarantee that a major event will not appear fairly rapidly.
"In Australia, its national drought began as a two-year anomaly, grew to a three-year event and is now in its 10th year," said Bishop. "We have got to be ready in case something like that happens here."
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017