With England facing the worst drought for a generation, engineering solutions are needed at a basic - not grand - scale, argues Fred Pearce, author of When the Rivers Run Dry.
Overlooking the cathedral city of Winchester is St Catherine's Hill, a beauty spot with a dirty secret. Just beyond the hill's ancient fort, Winchester pours its sewage into the hillside, from where Southern Water
eventually supplies it to taps across south Hampshire. It's quite safe. The chalk cleans the sewage well. There should be more of this. With England facing the worst drough
t for a generation, we can no longer drink our water
Britain is not a wet country. South-east England gets less rain per head than Sudan. And while most of the rain falls in the north and west, the population increasingly congregates in the south and east. That's why this week there were calls for a national water grid.
The first grid link could send Welsh water to London, via the River Severn and massive pumps that would get it over the Cotswolds and into the Thames. Soon, Whitehall may dust off old plans to turn the Wash into a giant freshwater reservoir for the Midlands.
But when we build big, we usually build wrong. Our biggest reservoir was opened by the Queen 30 years ago. Kielder Water is a mile from the Scottish border, and was built to supply Teesside steel works and chemicals factories. But by the time it was finished, those industries had all shut down. Today the reservoir sits largely unused. The tunnel dug to take its water from the Tyne to the Tees has only opened its taps twice.
We should forget boosting water supply and instead curb demand. Not with pathetic exhortations to consumers, like Thames Water's call last summer for women to stop shaving their legs in the shower, but with engineering.
London doesn't need Welsh water – or hairy legs. It needs to cut Thames Water's obscene leakage rates. The company currently loses 30 per cent of the water it puts into the mains – 200 litres a day for every customer. Paris and New York only lose around 10 per cent; Singapore is below five per cent. England and Wales leakage rates, at about 25 per cent, are higher than a decade ago.
And the privatised water companies should abandon their scandalous insularity and start sharing water. Last December, the Environment Agency told Ministers that the myriad small water companies in south-east England could save half a billion pounds by 2035 if they shared supplies. Instead, the companies were planning to saddle their customers with a bill of £760 billion for unnecessary new reservoirs. Never mind a national grid, a Kent grid would work wonders.
We also need household meters. Britain is almost alone in the industrialised world in not having universal water metering. Houses with meters use 15 per cent less water.
And we need recycling
. Londoners routinely drink water from the Thames that is mostly cleaned-up sewage from upstream. But elsewhere much of our effluent is pumped out to sea. The Environment Agency says "effluent should be valued as a resource
for use by abstractors" – that is, for water supply.
It can be expensive to clean sewage enough for drinking. That's why the best solution could be getting nature to help, by using rocks like chalk to filter out the nasties. Winchester's sewage never did south Hampshire any harm.
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