The hardness of water

<strong>Taken from the <em>New Statesman</em> archive, 23 July 1976.</strong>

The bound volumes of

On the face of it, the Government's hurried Drought Bill will enable stinging fines to be inflicted on the people who have been squandering a huge gallonage of water to keep the going good at Ascot and Newmarket, and to preserve green greens at golf courses, at least if they persist in their irrigation. Car-wash firms who lave automobiles with jet and spray, and companies who clean buildings by squirting water on their frontages, may also be in trouble. More than that, the Bill gives water authorities the power to limit the use of water by particular consumers. Firms could find themselves cut down or off, so that production is interfered with and perhaps short-time working inflicted.

It's a sour prospect but, if it happens, the Drought Bill could prove to be legislative recognition that even Britain, for most of this century an island often washed by wet westerly winds, has plumbed the bottom of the water-butt. Rain in quantity probably won't fall until October or November, and everyone will know the meaning of drought by then, if only by the prices of vegetables.

If the 1975-76 European drought, though, promotes the rational use and conservation of water, we will have been parched for a purpose. The official view, by the way, is that the drought is only a temporary difficulty: "We are treating it as a simple phenomenon," says the National Water Council. While in one sense this torrid summer has been out of the ordinary, drought may become a commonplace.

A little over two years ago Professor Hubert Lamb, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, gave a warning that Britain's future weather pattern might consist of long, dry periods broken only by occasional violent storms. The Met Office had its reply: "Our view is that there is really no evidence of long-term change. We can't go along with Professor Lamb that there are going to be extensive droughts." The Met Office has had a dislike of studying climatic change; to this day, they have only half a man working on it. The evidence two years later is that Professor Lamb needs more consideration and his unit more funds, of which it has been starved.

Meanwhile, Britain appears to be peopled with hydrodipsomaniacs who feel about water the way alcoholics feel about Scotch. A rare condition medically, hydrodipsomania produces conditions similar to alcoholic drunkenness: giddiness and delusions and, after 30 pints or so, even a kind of hydro-hangover.

Britain's consumption of water has been rising fairly rapidly. In the mid-1920s each person used on average about 20 gallons of water per day. Today he uses 37 gallons a day. Much of this is for good reason: women have been freed from the slavery of doing the washing by hand, but the automatic washing machine uses 20 gallons on a full load. The dishwasher uses more than the washing-up bowl; the fully equipped middle-class home may use over 50 gallons per head per day. Industry uses great quantities; to produce a ton of aluminium may require 300,000 gallons of water. If the paper for this issue of the New Statesman had been made in Britain, each copy would have required about 12 gallons.

Power stations are the thirstiest customers. One of the Central Electricity Generating Board's 2,000-megawatt power stations, on full load, sucks up every hour enough water to fill the big pool at Crystal Palace 75 times over. The CEGB point out that they put the water straight back again, minus a little lost through evaporation. But so do we all. Much of the water that flows from the hills to the sea does so by a remarkable if unsavoury route: in and out of human beings and factories, trickling through kidneys and filter beds, down gullets and gulleys. A glass of water you draw off the London tap may have been bathwater in Oxford.

The strategy of the nation's water-providers has always been simply to expand their resources: reservoirs have been the usual method, but today reservoir sites are much harder to come by. They tend to fall in the upland areas of the National Parks or on farmland; in either location, the reservoir-hunters find themselves opposed, with reason, by articulate middle-class groups with lawyers (the National Parks) or taciturn farmers with guns (in the Welsh valleys).

Sheer expense of water is not a matter that in the normal run of things troubles the English mind; after all, a pint of this clear fluid costs about one-200th of a penny. Yet water prices have been climbing steadily and, in some cases, very rapidly indeed. The paper-makers of South Wales, for example, have had their water bill increased several times over in the past few years. Given our price economy, it is probably right that water does become an appreciable cost, rather than something we take for granted just because it wets us on the way to work. Only a few towns - like Malvern - actually meter their domestic supplies, but it may become a more general practice as water prices increase.

We have certainly got to that point when it is hard to ask people to give up homes and land for new reservoirs because the climate is a-changing and water has a price that we are not used to paying. There are limits to growth, even in water.