Cross-country water transfer plans rejected: Putting showers in all new homes is proposed as one measure to beat drought. Nicholas Schoon reports

GRANDIOSE schemes for beating water shortages by transferring water from the North and West of Britain to the parched South and East have been rejected by Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment.

The answer, he believes, lies in making people use less water. Yesterday, he launched a consultation paper which sets out government suggestions for controlling demand, now rising by 1 per cent a year. Ideas include making showers a compulsory feature of new houses, tougher water conservation standards for washing machines and toilet cisterns, and widespread water metering.

The drought has eased slightly because England and Wales have had more than a third above the average July rainfall. East Anglia, one of the driest regions, had 122 per cent of average June rainfall and by yesterday it had had 157 per cent of the July average.

The summer rain has reduced demand but done nothing to recharge ground water levels - now at record lows - in the chalk aquifers which supply much of the South and the East. Hosepipe bans still cover 6.75 million people from east Devon to Humberside, and parts of the Home Counties have tougher drought orders banning all non-essential use of water.

The National Rivers Authority and the British Waterways Board have proposed that canals and rivers could be used to transfer water across the country. This month, the Scottish Office minister for industry, Alan Stewart, said he was interested in Scotland selling surplus water to southern England. But yesterday, Mr Howard said that apart from being extremely costly, such schemes could be environmentally destructive. Fresh water from Wales and Scotland is more acidic and chemically different from the water in the chalk rivers of eastern and southern England. It could damage their wildlife if it entered these streams in bulk. Huge new reservoirs, which several water companies are seeking to build, eliminated familiar landscapes and their flora and fauna.

'Increasing demand for water is an inevitable result of rising living standards. We have to look at moderating some of the demand,' Mr Howard said.

Four dry years combined with heavy use of ground water have left miles of dry riverbed in the South and East. But Mr Howard did not think water consumption could be cut: only that the rate of increase could be slowed.

Suggestions include reviving the practice of water company staff visiting households to check for leaks and replacing worn tap washers free of charge; introducing water meters first of all for households with swimming pools, ponds or hoses; and setting mandatory targets for water companies to reduce mains leakage. About a quarter of Britain's tap water is lost between the treatment plant and final home use.

Efforts should also be made to persuade water companies to recycle water, and to charge them for the amount they take from rivers and boreholes. At present, they pay a flat fee for a licence.

(Photograph omitted)

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