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  1. Environment
24 August 2022

Britain’s hosepipe bans are nothing next to global water shortages

Britons face severe water-use restrictions, but the consequences of drought, from the US to China, are far worse.

By India Bourke

“A disgrace” was how Andy Prendergast, national secretary of the GMB trade union, described the £1,000 fine that tens of millions of Britons face if they break hosepipe bans now in place across swathes of the UK. “Pretty damned hypocritical,” was the response of the clean rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey, who pointed out on Twitter how an average of more than 3 billion litres are accidentally leaked by the country’s water companies every day.

The bans are a response to the Europe-wide drought that has left fields parched and the water levels of rivers and reservoirs dangerously low. Under the 1991 Water Industry Act, they restrict the watering of gardens and allotments, the cleaning of private vehicles, boats and patios, and the filling of swimming and paddling pools, among other activities. The bans now stretch from Yorkshire to Wales – and include, from today (24 August), about 10 million customers served by Thames Water.

Water companies, meanwhile, are facing intense scrutiny for failing to sufficiently invest in infrastructure to address ongoing leaks and sewage spills. This has led to speculation that enforcement of the bans will be controversial. Not that any water company can confirm, the Telegraph has reported, ever having actually issued a £1,000 fine in the past 31 years.

But even if the prospect of fines is rousing understandable British ire, these restrictions pale in comparison with the disruption that droughts and heatwaves are wreaking across the globe. From the US to China, climate change is pushing global temperatures higher for longer – creating a devastating “megadrought”.

Here are some of the ways that nations are suffering and responding.

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[See also: Even Pakistan's devastating floods won't trigger a green revolution]

In China: “most severe” heatwave on world record

This shocking video of the exposed riverbed of China’s Yangtze river, the world’s third largest, only begins to convey the impact that the record-breaking drought is currently having across the country. In the north, groundwater reserves are reportedly even more overdrawn than those under the Great Plains of the US. In south-west China, 2.2 million hectares of farmland have been hit and trucks are delivering drinking water to areas in need. The weather historian Maximiliano Herrera told the New Scientist the country is enduring the most severe heatwave recorded anywhere in the world.

In terms of restrictions, hydropower plants are already operating at reduced capacity and manufacturers, including Tesla and Toyota, have suspended production in Sichuan province after power supply to factories was suspended. In the city of Chongqing, opening hours have been shortened at the city’s malls and other venues in order to ease energy demand. Shipping routes on sections of the Yangtze have closed.

If China’s water crisis continues, the effects will likely be felt around the world, with some warning of food and industrial material shortages that could outstrip anything seen during Covid-19 or the Ukraine war so far. Falling water levels in hydropower dams, meanwhile, could lead to increased reliance on the nation’s heavily polluting coal-fired power plants – which would further exacerbate the climate change behind the suffering.

In Europe: “unprecedented” drought

Dust and dead fish now cover the areas where Europe’s mighty rivers usually run. From France’s Loire to Austria’s Danube, Germany’s Rhine and Italy’s Po, nearly half of the continent is now afflicted by the worst European drought in 500 years.

In France, more than 100 municipalities have supply issues and are delivering drinking water by truck, according to a European Commission report. But some citizens are also hitting back at perceived unfairness in how non-essential water restrictions are applied – with climate activists filling golf-course holes with cement in protest at their exemption.

The hazard of related wildfires is also hanging over many nations, particularly Portugal and Spain. The flames have already burned areas in Europe equivalent to more than a fifth of the size of Belgium – a statistic that is 56 per cent higher than the previous record in 2017. The UK's Foreign Office has warned some parks and tourist areas may be closed due to the fire risk.

In the US: flash floods and megadrought

Flash foods have hit the south-west of America this week – a warning of what will likely happen in China and Europe. National parks have consequently been shuttered and highways closed. The rain will do little to offset the impact of a historic dry period, however, with more than 531,000 acres of the state’s farmland now left barren, according to the US government.

At Lake Mead, the nation’s largest hydroelectric reservoir, a 22-year downward trend has now led its water to fall to the lowest level since construction finished on its Hoover Dam in the 1930s. It could soon fall so low it is unable to operate.

In the Horn of Africa: starvation risk for 22 million

In perhaps the most dire consequence yet of globally heating temperatures, the UN has warned that 22 million people are currently at risk of starvation in drought-ravaged Kenya, Somalia and Ethopia. The worst drought in 40 years now includes an unprecedented four failed rainy seasons. More than a million people have been forced from their homes in search of food and water; 213,000 people in Somalia are already facing famine.

The UN’s World Food Programme has launched an appeal for support, but the war in Ukraine has both drawn away attention and made aid delivery more expensive. It estimates that $418m (£354m) is needed over the coming six months, and has scaled up action on behalf of millions who “cannot wait” for assistance.

[See also: How much raw sewage is actually being pumped into the sea?]

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