While customers are being asked to save water, one gallon in every five is lost before it reaches taps in homes and business premises, writes PETER FROST
It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was writing about Britain’s rivers bursting their banks to cause flooding, destruction and chaos across the country. Now the situation is quite the reverse — our rivers are running dry.
Spring should be the time of bubbling brooks and tumbling river torrents as showers fill the streams, rivers and reservoirs. Instead our watercourses are experiencing record-breaking low water levels following one of the driest winters in more than 20 years.
Even our wettest places like Borrowdale in Cumbria, which can usually expect two and three metres of rainfall per year are experiencing unusually dry weather. The high level of rain normally turns the river Derwent into a bubbling torrent each spring.
This year the River Derwent is almost dry, its rocky bed is exposed and dusty. Water birds, fish and invertebrates are struggling to survive in the few muddy puddles along the riverbed.
A government metrological office announced that the area had seen an almost two-thirds reduction in average rainfall. Temperatures on the west coast of England and Scotland, meanwhile, have been up to 3°C higher than normal.
Many other areas all over Britain are drier than ever and local papers everywhere are running stories on the disappearing rivers.
As well as the lower than normal rainfall, the river waters are also being threatened by higher levels of water extraction. It is a situation that has been getting worse over many years.
The recent lack of rain is also taking its toll on fruit and vegetable crops with price rises in the supermarkets today and further shortages also predicted for summer.
Peter Mills, a gardening adviser with the Royal Horticultural Society, said Britain is in dire need of weeks of persistent rainfall.
“We are absolutely desperate for rain after what has been an exceptional period of very dry weather.
“Ground water levels are dropping drastically and rivers are drying up so unless we get significant rainfall for the rest of the month we will not hold back this quite serious situation.
“We need weeks and weeks of rainfall for water levels to recover, and even with the forecast for rain it is not boding at all well.
“Fruit and vegetable crops are suffering.”
So what is the government and Environment Minister Andrea Leadsom doing to avert the crisis? As usual, very little — they are leaving it to the market, and that means the private water supply companies.
The privatised water supply industry is warning of a drought with advice to swap showers for baths, use sponges instead of hoses to clean cars and is warning of the possibility of garden hosepipe bans and even more water restrictions to follow.
Some experts are even suggesting the introduction of so-called smart water meters that can charge higher rates for water used during periods of high demand.
While the water companies’ customers are being asked to save water, more than 20 per cent of water is lost before it reaches taps in homes and business premises. That means that one gallon in every five is wasted and, far from improving, the situation is getting worse.
It is clear that the water companies have realised that in Leadsom’s Tory Britain it is cheaper to drain a river dry than fix a leak.
Ofwat, the water industry regulator, has issued figures that show three billion litres of water are lost every day. The amount of loss has reduced by only s7 per cent in the last 17 years.
Major companies across the south and east, including Thames, Anglian and Southern have seen no significant reduction in leaks and wastage. One company, Essex and Suffolk Water has even seen leaks rise by 15 per cent, according to Ofwat figures.
London’s Thames Water is not just the biggest water company in England it is also the leakiest — 20,500 litres (4,510 gallons) of Thames water escape every day from each kilometre of water main. That is more than double the national average.
Amazingly the leak reduction targets set by Ofwat for the period 2015 to 2020 show little ambition for improvement. Six companies in the south and east have been told the need to make no reduction in wastage and for Anglian, Southern and Essex and Suffolk, the targets would even allow an increased level of leakage.
Sue Hayman, Labour’s shadow environment secretary, spells it out: “The fact that water companies have made no progress in reducing water leakage over the past four years highlights the lack of focus and pressure from government on this issue.
“It is unfair that consumers are being asked to save water when companies are set unambitious targets.”
The government’s own official advisers, the committee on climate change, warned just last year that water shortages were one of the most serious effects of global warming in Britain, with even modest temperature rises leading to severe water shortages in England. It called for measures to reduce both leakage and demand.
The Environment Agency is the government agency — established in 1995 and sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — with responsibilities for the protection and enhancement of the environment in England, including rivers and water supplies.
The agency under the control of Leadsom says it is monitoring the situation as river and reservoir levels continue to drop. Sadly any action seems too little and too late, no doubt influenced by the many climate change deniers in the Tory ranks.
Meanwhile privatised water companies — more interested in profits than public service — are still doing far too little to stop the immense loss of water through leakage.
At the same time through our green hillsides and verdant lowlands the river waters that bring the countryside to life are running dry.