Drought, floods, leaks, meters

I wanted to wait to post this piece until the phenomenon I was going to talk about had actually happened (ironically tempting though it was to do a bit of ‘ambulance chasing’ on the flurry of stories we’ve seen over the past few months). Well, now things have more or less come full circle and I feel it’s as good a time as any to attempt this post.

Let’s start our story with a quote from a book published back in 2000, called Water For Urban Areas. In it Asit Biswas wrote the following:

‘Public, political, and media interest in water, which is extensive during catastrophic events, mostly evaporates after the floods and droughts are gone, and reappears only after several years or even decades, when the next catastrophe strikes…’ (p. 2)

The past few months have indeed seen exactly this kind of ‘extensive’ public, political and media interest in the UK’s drought and floods – with related questions being asked about current leakage and metering levels, among other things. But, reflecting upon what Biswas wrote over a decade ago, exactly where has all this interest led us?

The headlines have now started to recede, given the cessation of some drought conditions a few days ago, but let’s step back and re-trace the coverage over a six-month time window, for now. First we can go back to a December 2011 Defra press release mooting the possibility of summer 2012 drought orders in the face of two dry winters in a row. Fast forwarding a little, February 2012 brought a drought summit as the issue caught the media’s attention more and more, and we were treated to a fairly well-informed potted history of past ideas and plans for North-South water transfers – an issue upon which Boris Johnson has also piped in (back in June 2011; February was also when a ‘wacky’ plan from UU for a North-South pipeline alongside the HS2 rail line emerged). We also got a nice graphic of historical proposals for water region interconnections to address water resource imbalances, from way back in 1973:

Source: BBC news website (from the Water Resources Board).

This all came against a background where a summer 2012 drought was feared to be the worst since 1976 given low average winter rainfall levels not seen since 1972. Then, in mid-March, notice was given that seven water companies were going to impose drought orders from 5 April:

Source: BBC news website.

Regina Finn, chief exec of Ofwat, appeared on BBC’s Watchdog shortly afterwards (on 15 March) to respond to criticism of high leakage levels across the UK water companies in a time of drought. As people started to join the dots between droughts, leakage and metering in particular, April brought an interesting BBC story with a slightly broader set of apparently ‘radical’ solutions to the escalating water shortage:

  • Spending billions on more reservoirs to increase water storage;
  • Desalination to provide a new potable water supply;
  • Recycling sewage to drink;
  • Cutting per capita domestic water demand;
  • Compulsory water metering and increasing prices to encourage resource conservation;
  • Forcing companies to address more leakage;
  • Building cross-country pipes to transfer resources from water-rich to water-poor regions; and
  • Addressing population dynamics (limiting population or moving people to water-rich regions).

Throughout March and April drought-hit areas continued to spread just as heavy floods struck – with some rivers transformed from drought to flood in ‘one week’ – leaving many bemused (and confused) at the continuing drought orders:

Source: BBC news website (from EA maps).

Early May saw numerous attempts to explain how southern England’s long-term rainfall deficit (below) could not be immediately rectified by short-term heavy rainfall. Instead the message was continued low rainfall levels could mean drought until Christmas 2012 and even repeat restrictions again come summer 2013:

Source: BBC news website.

A week later (11 May) – following acknowledgement that we’d had the wettest (UK) April on record – it was announced that 19 areas had moved out of drought status. So will the media now read this as ‘crisis averted’ and shift their attention to other things? Will they leave the question of what has changed to prevent it all happening again unanswered?

Two days before the easing of drought conditions the Draft Water Bill was announced in the Queen’s Speech. Critics were quick to note its unambitious, slow timetable – and major omission of a strategy on metering to tackle future water shortages. A clearly disappointed Phil Burston – the RSPB’s water policy officer – even had this to say:

‘In terms of drought and flood, our legislators only look on the issue when it’s happening, and it goes off the boil between these events, so we stumble from one crisis to another.’

In other words, Biswas’ decade-old diagnosis all over again.

So, one has to ask, if months and months of high-profile water politics and media-led rumination on drought, flood, leakage and metering has achieved so little, what exactly is it going to take to break us out of this sorry scenario?

Duncan Thomas

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