The search for more is in full flood: There's been plenty of water around - but a lot more rain is needed. Nicholas Schoon reports on the struggle to keep taps flowing

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The Independent Online
DAY AFTER day of driving wind and bucketing rain, and more on the way. Many of those who have not had their homes flooded have been guiltily rejoicing at the return of proper British winter weather.

Rivers which were bone-dry in summer are now in full flood. In Wales yesterday, engineers continued the massive clean-up at Tredegar Comprehensive, Gwent, hit by coal slurry in a 3,000 ton slippage after the rain. Gwent County Council believes the site is now safe, but has asked an independent consultant for a second opinion.

Yet we are told that the drought that has afflicted Britain for four years is still not over. The drought has exacerbated a man-made water shortage. Water consumption in the United Kingdom rose by a little under 1 per cent a year through the 1980s, but in the once-booming South, which has less rainfall, demand rose much faster.

Less than one-twentieth of the rain which falls on Britain ends up in the water system. Water companies in future are either going to have to harness more - quite a lot more if the dearth of rain is a long-term trend - or consumers will have to use less. There will be expense and controversy either way.

Wales and the South-west, which faced most of the flooding, have not suffered from the drought. But in East Anglia, the water table in the underground chalk which supplies most of the region has only just begun to rise despite months of above-average rainfall.

North Kent, which is almost entirely dependent on groundwater, has also been blessed by above-average autumn rains. Yet the National Rivers Authority reports that this has not yet begun to recharge the chalk aquifer. The soil above is still soaking it all up.

There are unlikely to be hosepipe bans next year unless the rest of the winter, spring and summer are unusually dry. But the water tables in the great chalk and limestone aquifers under the South and East of England will recover very slowly.

Along England's southern and eastern flanks, running north to Yorkshire, dozens of rivers are running low because of low water tables in the rocks below. Their wildlife is impoverished, their fisheries in decline. The NRA has identified 40 severe cases, including the Darent in Kent which survives largely through water company boreholes.

If the rivers are to be restored, the water companies will have to pipe in water from other sources or develop new ones. But they are already looking for new supplies to meet rising demand.

Reservoirs may swallow up more productive farmland but they are likely to be resisted most by local people, who generally prefer to keep their green valleys dry and walkable rather than submerged by a lake. New reservoirs are expensive, adding to water bills which are already rising much faster than inflation because of the recent investment in improving drinking-water standards and sewage treatment.

The creation of a national water grid is often mooted. Bringing water from the wetter North and West to the dry East and South would be expensive, although using existing canals as pipelines could cut the cost. But this water flows over hard, granitic rocks and is acidic. Large quantities emerging from sewage works into lowland, alkaline chalk and limestone streams could damage their aquatic life.

A piecemeal, partial grid is likely to develop in any case. Several of the big regional companies are already developing mini-grids to shift water between rivers, counties and cities. These could be linked up.

The other solution is to cut down on consumption levels. The latest figures from Ofwat, the industry's economic regulator, show that, on average, 22 per cent of drinking water is lost through leakage. Reducing such wastage could absorb a decade or more of rising demand.

The water companies have been regularly criticised for this wastage, but there is a law of diminishing returns; stopping the biggest source of leaks is cheaper than stopping them all. Besides, perhaps as much as a third of the wastage can be traced to individual homes through dripping taps, overflows and leaking service pipes.

Which leaves metering: making people curb their consumption by charging them according to how much they use. This works, as the metering trials involving several thousand homes throughout the country have shown. But now that widespread metering is a likelihood, the trend is meeting growing resistance.

There is the expense. Installing a meter costs between pounds 50 and pounds 200 a house - some pounds 3bn nationwide. Sooner or later that expense will be passed on to the customers.

And there is the view, shared by the Labour Party and much of the population, that clean water on tap is a basic human right and metering it a serious infringement on this. There are worries about poor families risking hygiene and illness because of a fear of high bills.

The Government and both water industry regulators - Ofwat and the National Rivers Authority - are broadly in favour of metering. The industry itself is divided. Northumbrian and Welsh Water will not meter, Severn Trent has firm plans to do so.

Eventually, but perhaps not for decades, metering will win. If water is a finite resource, it seems rational and just to charge pro rata.

The way to overcome resistance is to introduce metering gradually and selectively, starting with wealthier homes with large gardens, ponds and dishwashers. Blocks of flats should be left till last.

There could be two tariff rates; a cheap one for normal, prudent use up to a given limit, and a higher, 'luxury' tariff for consumption beyond that.

Large, low-income families and those who need lots of water because of a medical condition could be protected by giving them special reductions or through social security payments.

Even in these normally damp islands, we can no longer treat water as an unlimited resource. There are environmental and financial prices to pay - and the bills will always find their way to the consumer.

(Photographs omitted)