Do we need another hosepipe ban?

Our leaders' tight-fisted and moralistic approach to water supply is a bigger problem than lack of rainfall.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

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Thames Water, the company that supplies the Thames Valley region of England, including London, this week announced a ban on the use of hosepipes (1). It joins a number of other companies in placing restrictions on water usage. Water, as with many other facets of modern life, has become a focus for exhortations about using less.

Conditions in southern England have been unusually dry for some time now. The period from November 2004 to January 2006 has been the second driest since records started in 1914, and the driest since 1920-22, with just 724mm of rain (2). Southern Water, already under a hosepipe ban, has been taking extra water from rivers to keep reservoirs moderately stocked. Orders to allow compulsory water metering have been approved for the Folkstone and Dover area.

According to Thames Water, rivers are now flowing at between a half and a third of their normal level and boreholes are at their lowest level ever. Other factors have contributed to the shortages. The population of the south-east is rising with an extra 800,000 people expected to move into the region in the next decade. Water usage per head has been creeping up, too. So, more people are using more water just at the time when the heavens are providing substantially less.

How can it be that a few months of dry weather can have such an impact? After all, this is not some poor and arid backwater. According to Forbes magazine, inner London is the richest area in Europe with a significant chunk of the Thames area (Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire) coming seventh on the same list (3). Is it really beyond the wit of planners to provide sufficient infrastructure to meet demand?

One problem highlighted frequently is leaking pipes. Thames Water hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory on this issue, losing 915million litres per day. While there is an ongoing drive to cut these losses by 200million litres over the next four or five years, Britain’s water system has suffered from decades of neglect. That won’t be turned around overnight and there are practical limits on how much these losses can be reduced.

A solution put forward by Thames to try to deal with this increasing demand is to build a desalination plant at Barking. This would supply up to 150million litres by taking water from the ebb tide (with only a quarter of the salt content of seawater) and squeezing it through fine membranes to produce drinkable water. While this is a relatively expensive way of producing clean water, it makes sense in an area with less available rainwater than far hotter cities like Madrid, Rome or Istanbul.

However, the plan was blocked by London mayor Ken Livingstone in April 2005. The proposal was regarded as out of step with the ‘sustainable management of water supply resources in London’. Thames Water was told to fix more leaks and cut water usage instead. Given the ongoing shortages, Thames Water is now planning to appeal against this decision.

In the meantime, consumers have been bombarded with all sorts of advice about how to save a bit of water here or there: turn the tap off when you brush your teeth; pour the water from peeling the spuds on to the garden; take a shower not a bath. The most appealing advice of all came from Livingstone himself last year: ‘We are asking people to consider – and obviously it is a matter of personal choice – that if all you have done is take a pee, you don’t need to flush the toilet every time.’ (5) That idea caused a bit of a stink, and not just in lavatories.

For all the guff about ‘sustainability’, it is this tight-fisted, moralising approach to water supply which is unsustainable. Like it or not, water usage is going to continue to rise and dry periods like the current one will occur from time to time. It makes sense to put in place sufficient supply to meet current and future demand – and that means reservoirs, treatment plants and efficient distribution. While there may be a drought at present, water shortage is a social and technical problem, not a natural one.

That doesn’t mean that water couldn’t be used more efficiently. Modern toilets and domestic appliances use far less water than in the past and further efficiency gains are undoubtedly possible without reducing effectiveness. Exhortations and restrictions are likely to be far less effective than policies that actively encourage change. For example, in various parts of the USA, including New York, households have been offered grants to replace old toilets with more efficient modern ones. This may be a sensible short-term option to postpone the more expensive construction of a reservoir or treatment plant.

However, the message we are getting is that it is our overconsumption which is to blame. A Thames Water spokesman told spiked that the introduction of the hosepipe ban was as much about raising awareness of water usage as it was about the amount of water saved from a ban itself.

We should be more concerned about planners and authorities that treat power showers, dishwashers and car washes as unnecessary luxuries rather than things we might all want to enjoy. Watering our gardens should not be a criminal offence.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Modern life

(1) Thames Water to introduce hosepipe and sprinkler ban from 3 April, Thames Water press release

(2) England prepares for drought as winters driest for 80 years, EDIE News, 24 February 2006

(3) Europe’s richest regions, Forbes, 25 February 2005

(4) Desalination solution for tidal Thames, EDIE News, 11 June 2004; Mayor denies Thames desalination plant, EDIE News, 29 April 2005

(5) Think before you flush – mayor’s latest message to Londoners, Guardian, 29 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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