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In Deep Water: As Europe’s Drought Worsens, the Government Remains Silent on Water Company Failures

The Conservatives’ inaction to alleviate droughts in England is indicative of the party’s wider ideological failings, writes Iain Overton

Cracked clay mud in a dried-up lake or river bed caused by prolonged drought. Photo: Arndt Sven-Erik/Arterra Picture Library/Alamy

In Deep WaterAs Europe’s Drought Worsens, the Government Remains Silent on Water Company Failures

The Conservatives’ inaction to alleviate droughts in England is indicative of the party’s wider ideological failings, writes Iain Overton

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In the end, water is life. This might sound like a greeting card aphorism, but it is a hard truth that Europe is slowly awakening to.

Headline after headline shows that the continent is grappling with increasingly persistent droughts, and the long-term effects of climate change on agriculture, tourism, human health, and ecosystems is beginning to ring true; like a distant bell warning of a death. 

Nations like Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Turkey are witnessing escalating drought frequency and intensity due to global warming. Heat exhaustion is becoming a feature of modern life. In the past decade, heatwaves triggered by droughts have emerged as a leading cause of natural fatalities worldwide.

Despite all of this, the UK Government appears to be acting as if this isn’t happening.

Hansard at Huddersfield, at least – a dataset that enables you to search the official, substantially verbatim, report of what was said in the Houses of Parliament – shows that our Prime Minister has never said the word ‘drought’ in the chamber. He has never said the word ‘water’ either in any political debate.

This is despite the fact that the UK, being as it is part of Europe, is suffering from drought too.

England has just experienced its driest February in three decades, with rivers and reservoirs supplying water for crops and consumption dependent on winter rainfall. South-west England and East Anglia face drought risks unless unseasonably sustained rainfall occurs in the upcoming months. Last summer, drought declarations in England and Wales led to hosepipe bans, crop losses and wildlife fatalities. Meanwhile, water shortages plagued Wales and Northern Ireland in February, causing reservoir and groundwater levels to drop.

Such weather realities have had profound consequences. The European Commission’s Joint Research Centre disclosed that Europe has endured its most severe drought in half a millennium, with almost 50% of the continent’s landmass facing drought due to a mere 20% of typical rainfall last winter and spring.

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As if that is not bad enough, Rohini Kumar of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, has described the situation as a multi-year drought. And if the past is anything to go by, our future looks bleak.

In a joint paper, he and colleagues recently classified the 2018-2020 drought in Europe as a historical event. They found that no drought covering such a large area for an extended period and coinciding with warmer temperatures had occurred in Europe since the middle of the 18th Century.

The drought affected approximately one-third of the land area of Europe, especially in central Europe. The duration of that drought event was unusually long, lasting 33 months. 

Scientists urge governments towards the development and implementation of drought prevention measures, as they say this unprecedented event is likely to occur more frequently in the future. They expect the mean drought duration to increase significantly, affecting up to 70% of Europe. But the UK Government stands silent on such a pressing issue.

Meanwhile, our network of leaky pipes are reported to be silently wasting some 20% of our water supply.

Yes, UK farmers are adopting innovative methods to combat drier weather, including water storage reservoirs, cover crops for soil erosion reversal and water infiltration enhancement, and tree planting to improve soil quality and structure. But the National Farmers’ Union’s call for substantial investment in updating Britain’s water infrastructure seems to go unheeded. The NFU may be urging the Government to construct new pipelines for better water redistribution and prioritise farmers’ access to water during scarcity, but the urgency of now does not seem to be there.

This inaction is worrying. The long-term prognosis remains bleak due to human-induced climate change. For each 1°C of warming, the atmosphere can hold 6-7% more moisture, leading to erratic rainfall patterns and more severe droughts and floods. When heavy rain does occur, flash floods often follow, causing further damage to land and infrastructure.

Expert after expert on this issue states the same solutions.

To ensure a sustainable future, governments, businesses and individuals must collaborate on comprehensive solutions – including investing in innovative technologies and infrastructure, promoting sustainable agriculture practices, raising water conservation awareness, and encouraging alternative water sources. Join forces, they say, and we can mitigate climate change’s impact and create a more resilient future for generations to come.

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But still the Conservatives remain silent. Why? Because it would show that the Thatcherite promise of the market and privatisation ushering in an era of infrastructure funding has failed.

Despite the £123 billion in capital spending over the past 30 years, not a single new reservoir has been built. Instead, £57 billion in shareholder dividends was poured out.  The reality of all of this? As Britain becomes less equipped to deal with future droughts, customers’ bills have doubled in the past 15 years and some project they are to rise again, exacerbating the existing cost of living crisis.

Overall, trade unions accuse water companies of neglecting investment in skills and fair wages for their workforce. The industry also faces a looming crisis, with many of its skilled engineers in their 50s are approaching retirement. The market, clearly, is not working. Six of the UK’s nine main water and sewage companies are owned by offshore investment groups, with the Chinese sovereign wealth fund owning nearly 10% of Thames Water.

Contrast this with Scotland. Since 2002, Scottish Water has invested nearly 35% more per household in infrastructure than its privatised English counterparts. And the thing that the Conservative Party dares not speak its name – public ownership of England’s water companies – could be more affordable than thought. 

The cost of renationalisation is said to range between £14.5 billion and £90 billion. Given the magnitude this nation faces, water security is as critical as energy security and the long-term advantages of public ownership are becoming increasingly appealing.

Perhaps that notion, at least, might get the Prime Minister talking.

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