Leading article: Weather vane

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The Independent Online

We trust everyone was enjoying the fine weather this week. But to anyone in the south of England looking forward to more of the same this summer: be careful of what you wish for. The South is facing its worst drought in a century. A ban on the use of water for all "non-essential" purposes in Surrey, Sussex and Kent is expected soon. Some 13 million people in the region are already banned from using hoses.

Car washers and window cleaners fear they could go out of business. The organisers of the Chelsea Flower Show have been forced to drill for water. There is even a question mark over Wimbledon. It is perhaps a blessing that England did not win the right to host the 2006 World Cup, considering that football pitches might have to go unwatered. Worse could be in store too if the South experiences a dry summer. The dreaded standpipes could return.

A familiar debate about the ethics of shopping one's neighbours for illicit hosepipe use has begun; so too have the complaints about the scandalous amounts water companies lose every day. But in the greater scheme of things, these issues are little more than distractions. Half a million new homes are scheduled to be built in the parched counties of the South over the next decade. Britain's water use is growing at more than 1 per cent a year. We must begin to think now about conserving more water. A good start would be to begin paying for it by volume, like our European neighbours.

If our water supplies continue to run short, we will soon begin to dread, rather than relish, warm, dry spring days.

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