December 3, 2020

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Despite it being July, and officially British summer time, it still feels like October. This is the wettest summer in living memory and it has started to feel as if the rain will never stop. However, whilst most of us are bemoaning the loss of our suntans and the barbeque season, scientists at Lancaster University are looking ahead to next year and what might happen to the UK’s water reservoirs if similar conditions should repeat themselves.

This year the UK had the driest March in 57 years which led the South of England to enter a state of drought emergency. For Britain this emergency involves hosepipe bans and the phrase “stand-pipes” being bandied around with gusto. But then the UK suffered the wettest April since records began and what felt like 3 more months of continuous rain. So the ban was lifted in a majority of counties and the country heaved a sigh of relief. But only a few are asking what we might do in future if this happens again.

Dr Alison Browne, from the Lancaster Environment Centre at Lancaster University, released research last month which she believes shows this cycle of drought and deluge will become more common in the coming years. Her research also outlines recommendations for the UK to upgrade its drought emergency system to something which more closely follows that of Australia. Browne claims that the UK’s method of dealing with drought is too off and on. “Either there is drought and a hosepipe ban is put in place, or there is no drought and everything is business as usual,” she says. “The impression that there is no lead-up time – no period of increasing dryness – is very misleading.”

Australia has a well-developed response to drought because water shortage has been a problem they have been coping with for many years. Their system has several grades of drought, each of which dictates different levels of water restriction and storage. Due to this there is never the sudden shock felt here when hosepipe bans are introduced. Browne also suggests that hosepipe bans are not the correct way to deal with a water shortage because it puts the responsibility onto house owners whereas much of this obligation should come from industry and large businesses. Browne specifically mentions car washes as high water-use businesses that should shoulder more restrictions.

Since the ban however, there has been an increase of a different kind of industry. The water-less car wash is a more environmentally responsible and cautious business which uses a technology that wraps and wipes the dirt rather than washing it off. Babatunde Sobola of Green Heart Wash says that companies like his are becoming more popular as people are becoming more environmentally aware. “Most people don’t know how much water they are using but since the ban people are starting to think about it more,” he says. Sobola wholeheartedly supported Browne’s recommendations for business and industry and added “Many people also don’t realise that it’s not just the environmental cost of wasting the water down the drain but also generating the energy needed to capture, clean and treat it before and after use.”

Whilst Australia’s drought warning system is very advanced, the recommendations made by Browne for it to be used in the UK mean that it would have to work in collaboration with the environmental agency, DEFRA and the water companies. This could be easier in theory than in practice. When asked if they would take on board the example set by Australia, Thames Water made it clear that they had the situation under control and needed no outside help at this time.

A spokesperson for Thames Water said: “Since the last drought in 2006, we have been investing to make our supplies more resilient. We have reduced leakage from our 20,000 mile network of pipes by a third to its lowest ever level. We have increased, by 20%, the maximum daily output of our underground storage system in northeast London, so it can now provide water for 1.2m people when required.”

However, as with many scientific issues in the public eye the problem here is not just implementing a system that could work but also keeping the public informed and being open about the challenges faced by our country in the coming years.

Whether the councils and water companies decide to follow the route outlined by Browne and restrict water use in advance of drought, or whether they decide to tackle the problem in a different way, one thing is clear. The UK needs a proper system built into the infrastructure to anticipate water shortage. If this fails to happen there will be problems the next time we suffer early summers, overcast days and soggy barbeques.