Terence Blacker: It's time to sound the alarm - again

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The Independent Online

It might have been a crazy dream, but I could almost swear that I heard a senior government nanny giggling flirtatiously the other day during a radio interview. The subject under discussion was the great drought that is, we are told, about to devastate these islands.

The male interviewer asked if we shall soon have to share a bath and the nanny - a quangoist, adviser or junior minister - gave a girlish laugh. It was not a bath but a shower that we should be sharing, she said, and a short one at that.

But seriously, though, she had an important message for the public. Water reserves are at their lowest for 10 years. The country could be facing its worst drought in a century. It might as well rain until September, as Carole King used to sing, but even so we are likely to be in trouble this summer. The sooner that a hosepipe ban was introduced, the better. In the meantime, people should be discouraged from washing their cars or windows unnecessarily and urged to be more responsible in their personal behaviour.

Vegetables should be washed in a bowl and the water used for plants. Gardens should be designed to accommodate flowers which like dry, hot weather. Baths should be avoided. Loos, washing-machines and dishwashers should be used carefully. If everyone turned the tap off while they cleaned their teeth, the saving would provide water for an astonishing 60,000 households (or maybe it was 600,000 or six million households) with a daily supply for... well, for an awful long time.

So a new source of anxiety has been unveiled. Water is running out, and yet we are using more of the stuff than ever before. Because the first law of environmental studies is "Everything gets worse", it is important that we start worrying right now before dustbowl Britain becomes a reality. If we continue to take baths and water our plants in an inappropriate way, we shall all be queuing at standpipes during the summer.

There is something faintly familiar about these cries of alarm, and that is because government by anxiety has become a favoured New Labour method of dealing with its more intractable problems. At the first sign of sustained opposition to proposed legislation that would infringe civil liberties and free speech, for example, ministers spoke in apocalyptic yet general terms about security and the threat of terrorism. The right to life was the greatest human right of all became the mantra of the moment.

Later, as the full absurdity of that argument in the context of ID cards became apparent, a new bogeyman was conjured out of the shadows. The identity thief was out to get us. It was the crime of the future. We were all vulnerable, even when we were asleep. Like terror, identity theft was a frightening yet murky idea; if we knew half of what the Government knew, it was implied, all our doubts would disappear.

This month's scare, environmental anxiety, has a useful further element: guilt. Here the threat posed to us and to future generations is not simply the work of violent fanatics nor sleazy cyber-criminals, but of ourselves, Western consumers. We have chosen to live a life of high consumption and luxury. There is a price to be paid. The very least we can do is to share showers and plant cactuses instead of roses.

But there is a small problem of consistency here. If, as we are being told, the current crisis means that it will become increasingly difficult to sustain water supplies as climate conditions change, it is fair to ask what action the Government itself is taking. In Australia, where they are forced to take such matters more seriously, the government pays for TV advertisements to remind its population of the importance of water conservation. Dual-flush loos are the norm in new and old houses. Here, Government ministers issue vague guidelines and send someone out to talk to the Today programme.

Even the most obvious loss of water, through leaking pipes, seems to be regarded as a minor irritation rather than a scandalous waste. The news, published last week by Ofwat, that leakage in England and Wales fell to 3,608 million litres a day in 2004-5 from 3,649 million litres the previous year - hardly impressive, one would think - actually is seen to be a cause for congratulation.

Under the benign eye of a regulator which worries more about increases to consumer bills than environmental concerns, the water companies have come up with a very contemporary excuse for their hopelessly slow replacement of faulty pipes. To spend more time and money on the problem would be uneconomical.

For its part, the Government cheerfully exacerbates the problem by putting through a crash programme of house-building in precisely the part of the country where the burden of population is greatest and rainfall is lowest.

So this is a crisis that is serious enough for there to be talk of the worst drought for a century, and for everyone to be urged to play their part in conserving supplies. On the other hand, it is not quite serious enough to persuade the water companies to put social duty before cash, or for John Prescott's office to consider the implications of its housing policy.

With the spread of guilt and anxiety among consumers, cheerful profit-taking in the boardroom, and a government attitude of fuzzy concern but no real action, it is business as usual in Whitehall.