Leading article: Excuses running dry

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The Independent Online

We learnt yesterday, thanks to Britain's pre-eminent hydrologists and ecologists, that parts of England are facing their worst winter water shortages for more than 40 years. For two consecutive winters, rainfall in the South-east has been at its lowest level since the 1960s. This is having a drastic impact on reservoir replenishment and river flows, of which the abnormally low level of the Thames is the most visible symptom.

Because there will be little opportunity to build groundwater levels back up before the spring and summer, residents of the South-east are facing restrictions in water usage to preserve stocks. Expect hosepipe bans and denunciations of the water companies for losing so much supply through their leaky pipes.

We should also prepare to pay an ecological price. Winter rainfall is crucial to the level of water in the soil through the summer. This dry season is likely to have a damaging effect on insect and river life. Many trees will not survive.

This is also an indicator of something more serious. The alarming pattern of rainfall in the UK is yet more evidence that global warming is accelerating.

It is worth pondering how we have come to know this. The scientists responsible for yesterday's warning hail from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, the very institution that is about to be brutally cut, with the closure of many of its respected ecology field teams. The cause of all this, lest we forget, is the withholding of Government funds. Yesterday's timely briefing is yet one more example of why we cannot afford to see these valuable centres close.

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