Saturday, May 12th 2012, 4:26 PM EDT
Failure to fix leaks and increase reservoir capacity are behind our water problems.
When I returned last week to a grey, cold, rainswept Heathrow, after a brief visit to Australia on rather sad family business, I naturally wanted to know what had been going on while I was away. It hardly said much for our democracy that Boris Johnson should have owed his “triumphant” re-election as Mayor to the support of just 16.8 per cent of those Londoners eligible to vote – while Labour owed its “victory” in council elections to just 12 per cent of the potential voters. The Greek and French election results heralded another sharp downward lurch in the slow-motion collapse of the euro. The prospect of Britain’s lights going out moved nearer with the pulling out of France’s state-owned EDF as the last company that might have provided us with new nuclear power stations, while the Environment Agency’s Chris Smith announced that Britain may be hoping for a glut of cheap gas from “fracking” shale, but that this could be allowed to generate electricity only on condition that all the resulting CO₂ is buried in holes in the ground, by a wishful-thinking technology that would double its price and is unlikely ever to work anyway.
As big a story as any, however, was the ongoing drama of our “wettest-ever drought” as, despite record recent rainfall, we are told that hosepipe bans are still unlikely to be lifted because we don’t have enough water to go round. And here, it turns out, there is a startling twist to the tale.
The great water shambles, as we know, centres on two major failings of national policy. One is the water companies’ failure to plug the leaks that are costing us nearly as much water every two years as is contained in all our reservoirs. The other is their failure to add to that reservoir capacity, which has barely increased in the 20 years since water was privatised, despite our 10 per cent growth in population.
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What makes this particularly odd, however, is that only a few years back, the last government was gung-ho about the companies’ plans to build five major new reservoirs in the south of England alone, where the shortage is most acute, and to extend three others. So what happened to all those plans? One after another they have all been shelved or turned down altogether by the Government, as when last year our Environment Secretary, Caroline Spelman, vetoed Thames Water’s plan for a huge £1 billion new reservoir near Abingdon, saying that there was “no immediate need” for new reservoir building. This was only months after she had sent back to the drawing board another well-advanced scheme near Portsmouth.
Astonishingly, it now emerges, it has become quite deliberate government policy to keep Britain short of water. And the explanation for this baffling volte-face lies in a “Communication” issued in 2007 by the European Commission (COM (2007) 414 Final) “addressing the challenge of water scarcity and droughts in the European Union”.
This document was based on the belief that Europe was facing a water crisis due to global warming. The only way to meet the prospect of severe droughts, it argued, was to encourage us all to use water much more “efficiently”. Not once in this 14-page document is there any mention of the need to improve the storage of water. From now on, the policy of member states must be, by every possible means, to reduce the use of water, not least by making it more expensive. This is the policy that our government has now adopted, as was confirmed last year by Mrs Spelman’s White Paper, Water for Life. In all its 105 pages, there are plenty of mentions of climate change and the need to conserve water in face of the predicted droughts. As Mrs Spelman put it, when rivers start to run dry and cracks appear in those empty reservoirs, “we must recognise these as warning signs of what we might expect to see in a changing climate”. But not once, as in the EU’s paper, is there any mention of a need to build new reservoirs. The only message is that we must learn to conserve this “precious resource”, not least by making us pay more for it.
Herein, it seems, lies the explanation for our current utterly bizarre plight, wherein Mrs Spelman pronounces that there is “no immediate need” for new reservoirs, and Ofwat tells water companies, as it did last week, that there is no need for them to fix those leaks before 2015.
If the people of Britain, not least the 20 million in the South East 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. But so far, Mrs Spelman has been remarkably successful in hiding from us just what a dirty and nonsensical game she is playing.
Click source to read more from Christopher Booker [At least Australians can sack their climate-mad PM]
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