Thursday 5 April 2012

Water water - anywhere?

So, the much-publicised hosepipe ban is upon us.

This should not be a surprise. It’s been talked about for weeks and everyone should have realised by now that we are living in one of the driest periods since records began. Indeed I heard one commentator say that the water resource situation now is worse than it was at the height of the famous 1976 drought.

People might complain about how somebody should have done something – more pipes, more reservoirs, desalination plants or whatever. But the point is that water is a finite resource. It does naturally replenish but if we use it at a faster rate than it is replenished then we are inevitably in trouble. Dreams of technological fixes, complaints about Water Companies, political niggling or whatever do not overcome a basic ecological resource issue.

Dry periods happen. Whether made worse by climate change or not, there is a great deal of natural variation in the weather so periods of drought are inevitable. Yet we are very vulnerable to this and our actions are making us still more vulnerable.

I heard someone on the radio this morning say that the Victorians would have sorted this out. And perhaps this is the problem – we are still thinking like Victorians. We believe we can build our way out of any problem and when this doesn’t work then we blame the people who failed to build our way out of the problem.

Technology is important, but alone it is not the solution. Furthermore by focusing on techno-fixes we are overlooking the ways that we are making things worse for ourselves. Below I will mention just two of these:

The first relates to how we come by our water.

75% of our water comes from underground aquifers, not rivers or reservoirs. Rainwater falls onto our countryside then slowly percolates into the ground where if forms the bulk of our water resources. What happens to our countryside to encourage water to seep underground is therefore fundamentally important to our water resources. If it falls on the South Downs for instance, is captured by stable, long-established vegetation then it can seep into the aquifer. If it lands on hard surfaces or bare soil then it is more likely to wash quickly into rivers and out to sea rather than going into the aquifer, perhaps causing erosion and flooding as it does so. Having rich and diverse vegetation, such as flower-rich chalk grassland, on our Downs is therefore helping our water resources (and perhaps reducing soil erosion and flooding at the same time). So nature conservation is protecting a vital service, as well as protecting plants and butterflies.

Therefore we should be conserving, expanding and interlinking these rich Downland habitats.

In the distant past about 20% of Sussex would probably have been “wetland” - areas where water naturally collected forming marshes, reed beds and floodplain woodland. Now less than 2% is wetland and much of what remains is highly constrained. In the past these natural wetlands would themselves have encouraged the accumulation of water in aquifers underground. Centuries of drainage might have provided more agricultural and housing land but we have reduced the ability of our land to absorb water underground. As nature conservationists, this loss of wetlands makes us concerned about the loss of wetland wildlife – the reduction of toads and newts, fewer wetland birds like snipe and lapwing, the threat to water voles and otter and the damage to fish populations. Important though these are they are but an indicator of deeper trouble regarding a hydrological system on which we are totally dependant.

Therefore we should be restoring wetlands, expanding them and re-naturalising valleys, financially encouraging farmers to farm in ways consistent with wetland habitats rather than requiring their drainage.

The second relates to our demand for water.

We use enormous amounts of water. Each one of us, on average uses 150 litres per day. That’s over a tonne a week each. With 1.4 million people in Sussex that means we use over 200 million litres a day - from a water resource that is not currently being replenished. Even this is only the tip of the iceberg. Many of the things we use or buy have a “water footprint” – they use water in manufacture and transport. For instance one cup of coffee needs about 140 litres of water to be grown, processed and transported. But even ignoring this, there are too many of us in the South East and each of us is putting too much demand on water. So we need to reduce our demand. There are plenty of water saving devices and water efficient appliances, and plenty of alternative ways of living in order to use less water. We just need the will – a general rethink about a resource that we must really understand is finite.

However, whilst leafing through Wealden District Council’s development strategy (most districts have them, I just happened too see this one) I see a list of house building allocations – 9600 homes to be built in the next 25 years, that’s about 25,000 people. This would increase our water demand by about 3.7 million litres a day, just for Wealden District. If you add in all the other house building plans for the rest of Sussex then you really get the picture of a planning system that is not paying any regard at all to environmental limits. We may need house building, to upgrade or replace existing housing stock, but at the moment our plans are based on a presumption of ever increasing expansion. In a finite world with finite resources and particularly with finite water – this is madness.

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