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Low rainfall, lower horizons

Thames Water is taking an innovative approach to sorting London’s water problem. So why is Mayor Ken raining scorn on it?

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Science & Tech

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Months of below average rainfall, especially in the south-east, have precipitated a water crisis in England. Water companies have introduced hosepipe bans and some, including in Kent and Sussex, have even obtained drought orders banning any unnecessary water usage.

This so-called ‘drought’ is perplexing many. After all, while there may be reduced rainfall there haven’t been any long periods of hot, dry weather, as there were in 1976 when many areas had standpipes in the street. Why should things that have become normal parts of everyday life – washing cars, hosing gardens, having a power shower – now be so problematic?

Clearly, our current water infrastructure is struggling to cope with a spell of dry weather. Groundwater levels in some areas are now reaching worryingly low levels.

An ideal solution would be to move away from dependence on the weather. If fresh water could be produced on demand, households and businesses wouldn’t be fretting every time there was a dry spell. Such an idea has now been put forward by Thames Water, which is proposing to build a desalination plant in east London.

The plant would be used in periods of dry weather, or where dry weather was anticipated. Rather than trying to remove the salt from seawater, the plant would use brackish waters from the Thames ebb tide. Furthermore, it would remove salt using a process called reverse osmosis – pushing water at high pressure through ultra-fine filters rather than by evaporation, the traditional approach to desalination.

The result? Up to 140million litres per day of drinking water, using, in comparison with desalination practices in other parts of the world, a relatively low energy process.

And yet, the planning application had to be approved by London Mayor Ken Livingstone – and he has rejected it. Livingstone is vigorously opposing Thames Water’s appeal against the rejection at a hearing in east London this week.

Livingstone has two main objections. Firstly, that the demand for water is unnecessarily high – particularly because of the 915million litres per day leaking from pipes controlled by Thames Water – and far outweighs the volume of water that the plant could produce. In his submission to the inquiry, the mayor says: ‘Thames Water have the temerity to ban Londoners from watering their lawns with hosepipes at pain of a £1,000 fine because – so they say – water is so scarce. While the mayor supports that measure…it must be recognised that such measures punish Londoners for Thames Water’s own profligacy.’

Secondly, he says desalinating water is contrary to his vision of making London into an exemplary ‘sustainable city’. ‘Every single day that the desalination plant is in full use, Thames Water would pump in excess of 150 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere’, he claims. ‘Thames Water’s predicted use pattern for the plant would lead to the emission of 22,600 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year, adding to the gases which already are warming the planet to such an extent that the government’s chief scientist – Sir David King – has advised the threat to be “far more serious than that of terrorism”.’

It is indeed true that Thames Water has a lot of work to do to replace veritable Victorian piping, particularly in north London. It claims it is now spending £500,000 per day fixing or replacing leaking pipes – with the aim of replacing 1,000 miles by 2010. Given the level of disruption this is causing, it is hard to see how the company could work much faster, and some pipes may be inaccessible altogether.

Livingstone’s figures for carbon dioxide sound alarming, but they represent a small fraction of what is produced by London all the time. According to government figures, London produced 13.9million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2003 – meaning that the desalination plant would add just 0.2 per cent to the total. For the advantages to be obtained from a reliable stand-by water supply, that seems pretty reasonable. Moreover, 22,500 tonnes is considerably less than the 35,000 tonnes of emissions predicted due to the international travel needs of those attending the 2012 Olympics just down the road from the proposed new plant.

What Livingstone really wants is for Londoners to restrain their consumption. He wants to enforce his own view that water is a precious commodity to be used only as necessary. In noting Thames Water’s argument that its problems are substantially down to the ancient nature of much of London’s infrastructure, Livingstone responds: ‘If water is scarce in London, it is not just because “London is different”. It is because Thames Water are mismanaging their network and mismanaging their customers, whose insatiable craving for “security of supply” they strive to meet even when many of those customers are wasting water and Thames should – instead – be persuading and helping them to use water more wisely and value it more carefully.’

Ironically, Livingstone uses the threat of water shortages in other parts of the world, caused by global warming, to justify refusing planning permission for a plant that would produce water reliably, whatever the weather. According to him, 800million people could be ‘water stressed’ if global temperatures rose by one degree Celsius. Surely if more people could access technologies to harvest and purify water, that would be better than trying to influence such a huge and complex system as the global climate? Rather than considering how to make water more plentifully available, Livingstone and his green advisers fret about reducing our collective ‘footprint’ – a restrictive mindset best exemplified by the London Congestion Charge.

On the other side, Thames Water’s attempts to justify the plant have occasionally bordered on the hysterical. It has been suggested that the plant is needed to protect London in case of terrorist attack, or from an emergency drought. Such is the state of planning today that everything must be couched in terms of counteracting risks as much as providing benefits.

In reality, the desalination plant is a drop in the ocean. It is neither big enough to become a major source of London’s water, nor to produce any serious damage to the environment. The plant does have a wider importance though, not least that other water companies are looking with interest to see how this appeal turns out. Green thinking, which is becoming increasingly dominant in government at all levels, suggests that the best future is to rein in our demands and do less.

A better solution would surely be to attempt to take greater control of our natural environment. Just as thousands of years ago societies stopped relying on whatever sources of food were accidentally provided by nature and developed agriculture, so increasing populations and development will require societies to take more direct control of the provision of resources that had previously been taken for granted.

If desalination technology can be embraced and developed, arid regions can be liberated from worries about water provision. As The Sunday Times noted at the weekend: ‘At present 18,000m gallons are produced by desalination each day, mostly in America and the Gulf. Spain plans to build more than 20 plants on its parched southern coast in the next few years.’

Thames Water has a lot to answer for – but in proposing this plant, it has taken an innovative approach to the problem of supplying London’s water. We should be encouraging such development, not raining scorn upon it.

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Topics Science & Tech

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