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Why selling our water isn't such a wet idea

WHENEVER a reporter pops up on the TV standing in a dried-up river or reservoir I think immediately of WH Auden who once memorably said his own wrinkle-ravaged face looked like a wedding cake left out in the rain.

Rain, or rather the lack thereof, is what causes river and reservoir beds to resemble old paintings whose oily surfaces are covered in cracks. It is a familiar and chilling sight in sub-Saharan Africa. For lack of water animals die and crops fail. Nor is the future much brighter for people. In some parts of the globe drought is as big a killer as disease. Water and life are synonymous; there cannot be one without the other. Take the former for granted and the latter's days are numbered.

But in northern Europe that's exactly what we do too often. Thus, by summer, the alarm bells inevitably start to ring. This year, however, we have already been forewarned of water shortages in the south and east of England. Though there is no need yet to panic, it's clear that rain is urgently needed to counterbalance the driest winter in two decades.

According to Caroline Spelman, Westminster's Environment Secretary, who earlier this week called a summit of water companies, "Drought is already an issue." Inevitably there is talk of a hosepipe ban, as if watering lawns and begonias is a priority, which perhaps it is in suburbia. Meanwhile wildlife groups are worried about birds and bees and farmers talk direly, as they are wont to do, about the effect on spring lambs if the grass on which they munch fails to materialise. Apocalypse, it would appear, if not now, is not so very far off.

Watching the reports one experiences a keen sense of deja vu. Inevitably, the arguments focus on perennial concerns. Too much water is being diverted from rivers to satiate the thirst of over-populated, urban England. Not enough has been invested in the infrastructure to prevent water seeping wastefully away. On top of all of which we consume too much of the stuff. On average each of us uses 150 litres a day.

Needless to say, we could get by on a lot less. That, however, is not an easy message to swallow. Rather we have grown accustomed to believe that, like air, there is an endless supply of water. Turn on the tap and out it gushes in a never-ceasing stream. Very few of us have ever had to queue in the street with buckets. Even fewer of us recall what it's like to go a day or two without water. Where once we bathed weekly now it's at least daily. How sparklingly clean we all must be.

But it comes at a price which, if things go on the way they have been, could escalate into a crisis later this year. If, for example, the drought continues then London and environs could suffer from severe shortages just in time for the Olympics. No-one thought about that when the talk was of delivering the games on schedule and within budget. Come July, the thousands of troops who are being deployed to ensure terrorists can't wreak havoc may find that their prime objective is to supply water not only to the capital's nearly eight million residents but to countless parched visitors and competitors. If that happens the embarrassment will be acute.

North of the Border, of course, it is wet, wet, wet. I have long bored anyone who has ears with the idea that our economic independence may depend not on oil but on water. I was only being half facetious. While oil is useful it is not essential. Water is, and increasingly it is regarded as saleable and exportable. Moreover, unlike oil, there can be no dispute over who it belongs to.

Which brings us to a dilemma: ought we to make it available, via pipes or other means, to our southern neighbours? Were lives endangered we surely must. At a reasonable price, naturally. But if our water was merely to be used for fripperies such as gardening, showering and car-washing then we would have to think again. Such a precious commodity ought to be treated with the respect it deserves.

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