Business, Economics and Jobs

Dept. of unlikely developments: A drought in … London?


Officials say less than average rainfall in the past two years on the heels of a dry winter could require emergency measures that would have locals forced to fetch their water in buckets.


Bruno Vincent

LONDON, UK – For anyone who has visited London and been forced to view its landmarks from the shelter of an umbrella, the concept of a water shortage blighting the region seems laughable.

In the wake of the wettest April for 100 years, even more so.

It may sound like a bad joke (or perhaps just a line from Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem), but southeastern England is indeed suffering a drought even as record downpours inundate many areas with knee-deep water.

Although the “wettest drought ever” appeals to British people’s love of the absurd, it has a serious side, not least for one poor soul and his dog who drowned when their car was submerged by a swollen river west of London.

Officials have warned that another dry winter on the heels of two successive years of relative rainlessness could require emergency measures that would have householders around the world’s financial capital forced to fetch their water in buckets.

"I'm not deluded into thinking that I can tell you how much rain we are going to get — and it's far too early to tell yet whether we are going to have the wet winter we do need,” Caroline Spelman, the UK environment minister, said earlier this month.

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“But whereas it's most unlikely we would have standpipes this year, if we have another dry winter that becomes more likely."

Standpipes — spigots attached to fire hydrants — are potent symbols of water poverty in Britain, having entered the collective memory when they were deployed during an unusually hot summer in 1976. Photos of suburban neighbors lining up to fill plastic containers are newspaper favorites.

The drought of ‘76 was blamed on record-breaking temperatures that, for some sun-starved citizens, made up for the inconvenience. But with this year’s shortage defying one of the most egregiously damp springs ever, there are mounting concerns about the UK’s water security.

Fresh debate on how the country manages its water has pitched environmentalists against skeptics, provoked tough questions about the sustainability of plans to alleviate overcrowding by building new homes and raised concerns about impact on farming and food prices.

Emergency measures have already been imposed in many parts of the country. These range from the seemingly parochial — restrictions on the use of garden hoses and sprinklers — to the somewhat surreal — zapping fish with electricity to rescue them from depleted waterways.

Water companies have also sought permission to expand exploitation of aquifers and increase extraction from rivers. Across London and the southeast, they have deployed billboards urging the rain-soaked public to curb usage.

But why, some have asked, given the prevailing inclement weather in the U.K., can it not develop the capacity to store enough to cover the lean years?

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The GMB union, which represents water workers, last month accused the country’s biggest supply company of selling off no fewer than 25 reservoirs that could have been used to collect recent rainfall that has instead been allowed to run out to sea.

“A major city like London has run out of water twice in the space of five years,” said GMB spokesman Gary Smith, accusing suppliers of putting profit before customers. “Thames Water must recognize that this is dismal water management in a country that is filled with water.”

Thames Water, which serves much of London and the surrounding area, has insisted the sites were not actually storage reservoirs and would not have helped. But Thames and other companies have also faced criticism for failing to plug leaks that daily lose 3.4 billion liters.

Critics have additionally asked why the government has not encouraged water companies to expand storage capacity. One plan for a $1.6 billion reservoir to service London was vetoed by the environment minister last year on the grounds that “there was no immediate need.”

Further questions were raised last week when it was revealed that over half of all U.K. supply companies will not be required by regulator Ofwat to cut leakages until 2015. Across the industry, leaks must be cut by just 1.5 percent in that time.

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Instead, proposals published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs focus on demand reduction and increased efficiencies — measures that would seem to make ecological sense but have nevertheless generated outrage in some quarters.

“Astonishingly, it now emerges, it has become quite deliberate government policy to keep Britain short of water,” fumed Christopher Brooker, a climate change skeptic who accuses Spelman of using Meteorological Office global warming forecasts to shirk infrastructure investment.

He added “If the people of Britain, not least the 20 million in the southeast still under a hosepipe ban, were aware that this was being brought about by a quite deliberate policy, backed by the crackpot projections of our climate change-obsessed Met Office, they would be very angry indeed.”

As if the weather wasn’t bad enough.