Flash floods, hosepipe bans and water poverty: solving 21st century challenges

Saturday 2 November, 12:0013:00, Frobisher 1-3Solving 21st-century problems

Water is one of the most basic natural resources. Vital for human life, water covers 71 per cent of the Earth’s surface. Yet despite this, and huge progress in technology and modern development, the scarcity of ‘potable’ water – leading to what is described as ‘water poverty’ – is one of the great challenges facing humanity today. In March this year, the head of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, argued that because water usage is rising and water availability would fall as climate change took effect, ‘many parts of our country will face significant water deficits by 2050, particularly in the south east where much of the UK population lives’.

The main solution, it seems, is to reduce our water usage. For example, all new-build housing must have a water meter installed and water meters can be imposed on existing properties if water companies say they are necessary. The aim of metering is to ‘nudge’ us to use less. Currently, UK consumers use 150 litres of water per person per day. One NGO, Waterwise, argues that this should be reduced to 100 litres per day.

How could our green, pleasant and frequently wet island run short of water? Met Office records show that average annual rainfall has not changed since records began in the 1760s. While summer rainfall may have declined a little, winter rainfall has risen. One important pressure is rising population, which is expected to jump from around 66million now to 75million by mid-century, with the biggest rises in relatively dry areas like the south-east of England.

Perhaps the problem is a lack of innovation and a willingness to invest in big projects. Israel, for example, is over 60 per cent desert with another 20 per cent semi-arid land, but does not suffer water shortages, thanks to greater use of desalination and other technology. China has ambitious plans to transfer huge amounts of water from the Yangtze river in the south to the arid north. Around the world, agriculture – a major user of water – has benefited from greater precision in irrigation, with sensors and satellite imagery providing greater control and lower water usage. While there are parts of the world that are suffering severe water stress, from California to India, should the solutions focus on behaviour change, technology, new infrastructure or all three?

Is it true that the UK is running short of water? Is it time to accept that water is a precious resource and do more to conserve it? Should we be more radical in our use of technology and engineering, as other countries have been, so we can continue to use water as we please?