Friday, July 22, 2005

Water shortage

'Drought alert: the 2005 water crisis', led the Independent, with a desert-like picture emblazoned on the front cover. 'It looks like somewhere in Africa but it is actually the bed of Weir Wood reservoir near East Grinstead in Sussex.' The photo illustrates how the driest winter and spring for 30 years has affected supplies to many areas in southern England, with restrictions in force on unnecessary water usage. London mayor Ken Livingstone has already asked Londoners to reduce their water consumption, and there are reports of a significant impact on wading birds that live around the reservoirs. The same lack of winter rain is causing more severe water shortages elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Portugal, Spain and France. The implication, never stated, is that such extreme weather is going to become more commonplace with global warming.

While these conditions are unusual, they are not unheard of. For parts of southern England, the winter and spring from November 2004 to June 2005 was the fifth driest since 1914 with 326mm of rain, 63 per cent of the usual rainfall. However, 1976 was considerably worse with only 227mm of rain. Nor are these conditions being experienced everywhere across the UK. While parts of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and south-west England are also experiencing significantly lower rainfall, in north-west Scotland, rainfall has been considerably higher than normal - the third wettest on record.

While readers have been left to conclude that this must be something to do with climate change, the current situation is the exact opposite of what global warming theorists would expect. The problem is a lack of winter rain, but climate change theories suggest warmer, wetter winters. Instead, news reports have lumped together a whole bunch of unusual weather conditions - hurricanes in America and Mexico, hailstones in Switzerland, floods in Romania, along with the drought - and concluded that we must do something about it.

For example, Dr Dan Barlow, director of policy and research at Friends of the Earth Scotland, told Scotland's Herald newspaper: 'It is difficult to link specific events to the effects of climate change, but the Nature report did state that human influence had doubled the risk of extreme weather events like the heatwave the previous year. It is all the more reason for taking action now to combat global warming instead of waiting for the worst.' In fact, there is little evidence of an increase in extreme weather events but why let the facts get in the way?

The restrictions on water usage in southern England have been trivial, and are a product of infrastructure, not meteorology - in particular, a flawed water supply system that allows far too much water to be wasted in leakages. The suggestion by Livingstone that consumers don't flush when it's 'only a pee' would have considerably less benefit than fixing the infrastructure or developing new supplies. As the current issue of Private Eye points out, Livingstone's idea would save 100million litres per day. Building the new desalination plant that he blocked would produce 150million litres per day. Fixing the leaks in the Thames Water system would save 900million litres per day.

Livingstone and others suggest we're making too much of an impact on the environment. The real lesson of the water shortage is that we're not shaping our environment nearly enough to meet our needs.

spiked: Don't panic

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