Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I have long been struck by the poetry of water and its ability to touch the human soul in a way none of the other elements can. It seems to resonate deep within us, perhaps a distant DNA echo of our antediluvian past. Long before it became my job to think about these things, I was fascinated by it – the different colours of the sea, the way it could look peaceful, calm and tranquil or threatening and brooding, according to the weather the season and also to some extent the emotions of the person standing on the shore watching it. It has the ability to sustain life but also to destroy it.
As the inhabitants of the British Isles we have been defined by our relationship to the water that both surrounds us and falls from the skies overhead. We are a seafaring people and even those of us who live miles from the nearest shoreline think of beach holidays, river boating and outdoor pursuits such as fishing as part of our heritage and national character. It is hard to imagine or accept therefore, that in some parts of Britain now and for many others in future, water is going to become more of a precious commodity and less of a God given right. Consumer demand for water is linked to affluence and as such, lifestyle aspirations have increased demand for water in a way that could not have been foreseen only a few decades ago. We have dishwashers, washing machines and other appliances which used to be the province of the wealthy few but are now mainstream consumer goods.
Given this enormous emotional connection to and practical need for water, why does society place such a low value on it? We must do or we would not waste it as much as we do and then complain when the price goes beyond what we consider we should pay for it which is very, very little. Despite several years of publicity about drought and water shortages, especially in the crowded south east of England, few of us give it a second thought when we wash our cars, fill our swimming pools and run our taps. It’s just there, either to be used wisely or squandered as we wish. A key feature of research undertaken into consumer attitudes to water is that any shortages are perceived to be someone else’s fault – resources have been mismanaged or we wouldn’t have got into this mess in the first place. It’s the government’s fault, the local water company’s fault or the industry funders and regulators. Never ours.
It could be argued that part of the problem is that we live in a very wet country. It rains all the time or we feel as though it does. One aspect of the British temperament is to be slightly melancholy, to affect a world weary air as we look at the skies, roll our eyes and search for our umbrellas. The recent flooding has reinforced the common view that Britain has too much water, ready to burst the banks of rivers, overwhelm drainage systems and surge through our front doors at a moment’s notice. Paradoxically, this is true as well. It is the other side of the climate change coin – too much in the wrong place, at the wrong time and not enough elsewhere. So, in a country in which it rains almost constantly, when flooding is a fact of life and where we spend more time indoors looking at the rain than soaking up the elusive rays of the sun, we still have water shortages; it is easy to understand why the public are so sceptical.
The privatisation of the water industry in Britain was, in my view, a success and has levered in finance and capital for improvements that would not have been possible if it had remained in the public sector, unless middle England was willing to pay more income tax, which so far it has been reluctant to do. But I believe the service culture, calling water users `customers’, sending notices of water charges instead of water rates and generally behaving more like foreign owned multi-nationals (which they almost all are) has given rise to a belief that their customers should expect proper service for their money. And proper service involves having access to unlimited amounts of water at a cheap price, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. This is a reasonable expectation, if you take the logic of the free market economy at face value.
But there is an underlying supply problem here despite our rain, our umbrellas and our floods. We do not have enough water to go round, simply because there are too many of us, in too small a space, consuming it as though its availability could be guaranteed forever, regardless of cost. In fact, we have less available water per head than for example, Syria. Water demand increases roughly in line with affluence and also with social norms of behaviour such as people showering every day before going to work, consumption is affected as well. In the south east of England where around 78% of households own a shower, average demand for water is now 162 litres per head, per day. This compares to an average of 150 litres per head, per day for the country as a whole.
The south east of England is not only the driest area of the country, it is the most affluent with per capita incomes higher on average than the rest of the country. It is the most densely populated, which has a knock on effect on the ability of the water supply to meet its needs. It is also where many of those who have the greatest effect on our lives and on public opinion happen to live including government ministers, civil servants, media commentators, architects and others concerned with the built environment. If the UK’s view of the world is to change, the impetus for this change will have to come from those who drive opinion and hold the purse strings on public/environmental expenditure.
It has been shown that peer influence has a greater impact on the public’s pro-environmental behaviour than the raising of awareness or even cost. Those of us in the south east can be the good citizens of the country if we choose to exert our spending power and influence in that direction. The answer is not to build more reservoirs, bigger storage tanks, desalination plants and other facilities. We have to use less water on a day to day basis, by reducing our dependence on technology which uses water in manufacturing and eliminating waste through leaking pipes. In other words, we all have a part to play when the ability of our society to collect, store, treat and supply water is severely constrained in an overcrowded country as hotter, drier summers and wetter, milder winters become almost inevitable.
We can refuse to face the truth and place the blame on politicians, water companies or climate change scientists but the fact is, water will become scarcer and probably more expensive as demand starts to outstrip supply. We can avoid the need for some new public infrastructure by taking basic measures in the home, such as fitting low flow showers and turning off taps. The question is, do we value water enough to do these things? Across the world, water is becoming the new oil and wars will be fought over access to supplies to support growing populations. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner seems more relevant than ever
Joanne Turner is a former civil servant and now works for BRE Global Ltd as a Senior Sustainability Consultant, specialising in water efficiency, flooding and surface water drainage