Letter: How Britain can safeguard water supply

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The Independent Online
Sir: Nicholas Schoon, like so many water pundits, is missing the main point about Britain's water supplies ("Why we are too wet about water", 28 February). This is that we are not short of water in total, but that rain tends to fall unevenly in both time and space. If climate change happens, then most predictions are that the rainfall in Britain will stay about the same but that the irregularity will increase. We may get longer periods without useful rainfall, interspersed with very wet periods.

The common-sense answer is to increase water storage, so that we can store surplus for times of scarcity. I and many other hydrogeologists argue that the best place to store this water is in the ground, but we run up against two problems.

First, opposition from environmentalists with the erroneous but much- quoted statement (repeated by Schoon) that groundwater abstraction damages wetlands. In reality most changes to stream networks in recent years have been caused by the changing rainfall pattern or changes in land or river management. There are actually only a handful of substantiated cases caused by over-abstraction and these are being remedied. It does not seem to have dawned on many people that if the climate is changing, the river patterns will change in response.

Second, the fact that engineers like to build reservoirs in preference to sinking boreholes because reservoirs create more profits and prestige. There are some areas of the country where reservoirs are the only sensible approach to storage, but in general they should be used only where groundwater storage is not available.

Of course we should care for the environment and not waste water, and the industry could do much more to reduce leakage by the simple expedient of accepting responsibility for the service pipes on consumers' premises, just as gas suppliers do.

But metering may not give the benefits expected. World comparisons show that water consumption, whether metered or not, goes hand-in-hand with prosperity. More affluent societies use more water, and are prepared if need be to pay for it. It is worth remembering that petrol is metered and expensive, but this has not caused everyone to drive small, fuel-efficient cars.


Senior Lecturer in Hydrogeology

The University of Reading