The looming drought shows the perils of short-term thinking

We are now reaping the consequences of our politicians’ failure to act until things get desperate says Philip Johnston - for the Telegraph - 26 July 2022.


We are heading for a drought, the worst since 1976. The past few months have been the driest since that glorious summer was blighted by a lack of rainfall, empty reservoirs and dried up rivers. It got so bad that the mains supply was cut off to thousands of homes, with residents forced to queue at stand pumps with buckets and containers for their water.


Since 2010, prolonged dry spells have twice forced water companies to limit non-essential domestic and commercial water use, or apply for special permits to extract extra water from the environment. But this year looks worse. Only two months since last August have seen higher than average rainfall. It is the longest dry spell since 1976, which ended spectacularly just days after Denis Howell, the Birmingham MP, was made minister for drought. He was urged by a desperate James Callaghan, the prime minister, to perform a rain dance in public, something he sensibly declined to do. He was later named minister for floods.


We have never been especially bothered about managing water in this country because so much of it drops on us from the sky, or at least we think it does. However, rainfall levels in London and the Home Counties are among Europe’s lowest. In some years, the annual total in East Anglia is below that of Jerusalem or South Sudan.


Two factors have made water management a much more pressing concern. The first is climate change, with the possibility of more warm, dry springs and summers. The second is the huge growth in population, especially in the South East where the supply shortages are most acute and rainfall is scarcest.


The recent census estimated the population of the UK at around 67  million people, with a quarter of them in London and the South East. Yet our water infrastructure was designed for a much smaller population and no one thought to plan ahead for the explosion we have seen in recent decades.


In 1976, the population was 56 million and the system could not cope, so it will find it hard to do so now unless we get a lot of rain over the next few months. The National Drought Group met yesterday to devise a strategy for dealing with a prolonged dry spell but emergency measures tend to provide short-term mitigations rather than long-term resilience.


A huge new reservoir is needed in the South East but plans for one near Abingdon in Oxfordshire have been around for almost 30 years without even a single hole being dug. Digging will start in 2025 but it will not be completed until 2037. More desalination plants are needed near London – it has just the one – and better schemes to reuse and share supplies and improve water management are all essential.


However, we are notoriously bad at long-term planning. All governments would rather deal with now, not tomorrow, or look no further than the next election. The Tory leadership debate brought this out on Monday as Rishi Sunak complained that Liz Truss’s tax plans were a “short-term sugar rush of unfunded cuts” to be paid for by future generations.


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