Leading article: Plenty of water to go around

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The Independent Online

One option, of course, is to pray for rain; because unless there is quite a deluge in the coming months then parts of the country face the worst water shortages since 1976. Indeed, the cracked riverbeds and fast-emptying reservoirs of the south-east have galvanised the Environment Secretary into calling a "drought summit" of all interested parties from water companies to environmental groups. All well and good, providing she acts swiftly as a result.

Water shortages are far from new. Neither are they simply a matter of two unseasonably dry winters in succession. The average person now uses 150 litres of water every day, almost 50 per cent more than 25 years ago, and consumption is set to rise by more than a third again over the coming decades. The Government does have a plan of sorts, encouraging sensible measures such as only filling the kettle as much as is required. But changing public behaviour is slow and time is of the essence.

The case for water meters is, therefore, a strong one. Less than a third of households have a meter, but those that do use around 10 per cent less water. There are issues to be addressed – to ensure that poorer people are not penalised, for example – but they are far from insurmountable and a national scheme should be put in place as soon as possible.

Cutting consumption is only part of the solution, however. Water shortages are not just a matter of profligacy, they also show how far the country's infrastructure has failed to keep up with the demands upon it. Regulatory changes, in particular to encourage water companies to trade between regions, may not be enough by themselves, but they will certainly help.

With regional trading up and running, the final piece in the jigsaw is the new pipelines, canals and aqueducts needed to shift larger volumes from wetter to drier areas. Major infrastructure spending – with all the implications for jobs and skills – is also just what the moribund economy needs. But to get plans off the ground, the Government will need to do more to help with funding, albeit by bringing forward capital spending rather than extra borrowing.

The central challenge facing Britain's water sector is not that it rains more in the North than in the South, nor that we use too much water. It is that there is no co-ordinated, nationwide approach. In fairness, efforts are being made and a water Bill is expected from the Government shortly. But progress has been too slow, as the dry bed of River Kennet attests. It can only be hoped that yesterday's summit will quicken the pace. Yet more talking will not be enough.