It seems strange indeed that Britain - a soggy land surrounded by sea - should be facing the kind of water crisis that afflicts dry Third World countries. But there is no doubt about it: without drastic water saving measures, parts, at least, of the South-east of the country will be lucky to get through the summer without interrupted supplies and standpipes in the streets. Part of the problem is that we are two nations, meteorologically. Scotland, Wales and the North have more than they need, or want. But the South-east has less water per person than Syria or the Sudan. Add 14 months of unusually low rainfall, and no wonder a crisis is imminent.
Already the public is being urged, and compelled, to save water. Twelve million people are covered by hosepipe bans and, as we report today, plans are afoot to turn off fountains, prohibit car-washing, and stop the watering of parks, playing fields and golf courses.
The water companies are quick to blame the public for profligacy, a rare case of an industry blaming its customers for consuming plenty of its product. But they badly need to look to their own record. Every day they let a staggering 4.7 billion litres of water, enough to supply 14.5 million homes, run to waste through leaking pipes. When they were privatised, they ripped off money supposed to be used to renew their infrastructure, so as to swell their profits and their executives' pay packets. It is a scandal, and so is their failure adequately to stem the leakage even now.
Nor are they the only powerful villains. John Prescott's insistence on cramming more and more housing into the dry South-east is setting up even greater water crises for the future. But, in the end, we cannot escape responsibility ourselves. The average Berliner uses 110 litres of water a day. The average Londoner gets through 160, without being noticeably cleaner or more fragrant. It is not just the water companies, culpable as they are, that waste water, and it is not just they who must, literally, put their houses in order. We must all save it, or suffer.