If the UK is to survive the worst effects of climate change, it will need robust infrastructure to protect its citizens from the meteorological threats that lie ahead. By every scientific estimate, our greenhouse future will be one of increasingly unpleasant extremes: more intense heat waves, higher summer temperatures, more violent storms, rising sea levels — and, of course, worsening droughts. Scientists have repeatedly warned us about these effects in the future. Thanks to the massive amounts of greenhouse gases we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere, we have no way of avoiding these changes. We can just try to deal with them.
Thus, our response to the current water shortage gives us an opportunity to assess our preparedness for the coming weather chaos. In short, can we gain some confidence about our ability to combat climate change from the way our water companies are trying to combat the drought that is now afflicting the country? The answer is straightforward and frustrating. If there is anything the water industry must go through, we look woefully unfit for the upcoming battle.
Certainly, the images of dry grasslands and empty reservoirs that have filled television and newspaper screens over the past week indicate that we have learned very little about the work of maintaining a proper national water supply. No great reservoir has been built in England since Kildare Water The dam was built in 1981. Thus, our capacity to store fresh water has remained constant as the demand for it has risen steadily with the growth of the population.
The inability to match water storage with residents’ needs has had bleak effects. First, we have been forced to pump more water from groundwater sources. This has strained aquifers, lowered the water table in many areas, and threatened chalk streams. This latter danger is particularly puzzling because chalk streams are some of the planet’s rarest habitats – and the vast majority are in England.
Failure to collect and store water is also annoying as the nation is getting wetter. The early impact of climate change meant that 2011-2020 was 9% wetter, in terms of precipitation, than 1961-1990. So there is no shortage of water that we can collect. Unfortunately, we seem to lack the motivation to do so.
Then, when we succeed in obtaining and storing water, we waste it. Thames Water, England’s largest water and wastewater service provider, which supplies drinking water to 9 million customers in London and the Thames Valley, has admitted it loses more than 600 million liters of water per day. That’s enough to fill 240 Olympic-sized swimming pools and is nearly a quarter of the total water they provide. For the whole of England and Wales, the daily loss – from leaks and other losses – from all the major water companies in the two countries is 3 billion liters of waterone-fifth of its total supply.
This staggering extravagance seems unwarranted, especially at a time when we witness empty reservoirs, blocked water hoses, and visions of burning gardens, parks, and playgrounds. Worse, analyzes suggest that while water bills have risen significantly over the past three decades, spending on improved infrastructure by water companies has, at best, been flat or declining, depending on how the numbers are broken down. Hence the severity of our current drought, it is said.
At the same time, huge dividends were paid to the shareholders of the water company while CEOs were generously rewarded for their work. Sarah Bentley, president of Thames Water, has a base salary of £750,000 and has also received huge annual bonuses. Other water chief executives have been rewarded similarly with a recent analysis indicating that water company chief executives in England have earned a total of £34m over the past two years. However, critics argue that these individuals do little more than act as senior government officials.
These corporate chiefs were the main beneficiaries of the privatization of water companies in England, which was imposed by the Conservative government in 1989. Margaret Thatcher and her ministers hailed the move as one that would ensure increased investment in the industry as consumer prices drop. In fact, the opposite happened. At the same time, a national resource ended up being owned by foreign investors. Large quantities of Thames water have been purchased by Chinese funding groups, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait, for example.
It should be noted that it is unlikely that these investments were made for charitable causes. They would have been made because the dividends seemed profitable to the investors. Thus, it has been sold something that should be treated as a national resource and as a primary defense against climate change for short-term financial gain.
This is not the way to invest in infrastructure or prepare defenses against the vagaries of climate change. The lessons of our response to the drought are profound. Not only are we not poorly configured in terms of pipelines, tanks, and leak prevention. We are also financially and politically misplaced in our attitudes towards climate crises that will surely worsen in the coming years.