Courtesy Mridula Ramesh’s book ‘Watershed: How we destroyed India’s water and how we can save it’, we learnt a couple of years ago that most of India’s cities are consuming more water than the monsoons can supply thus leading to Indians’ drawing down the nation’s groundwater resources at a rapid rate. Courtesy Tim Smedley’s long read in The Guardian, we learn that the United Kingdom too is suffering the same fate:

“The UK’s average annual rainfall is about 1,100mm, compared with less than 300mm in Pakistan or double figures in Egypt. However, despite our winter storms, significant parts of the UK are staring down the barrel of empty water butts. Much of that four-figure rainfall average is propped up by the rainy Highlands of Scotland, Wales and northern England. In south-east England, where I live, the average annual rainfall lingers about 600 mm – comparable with Lebanon or Kenya, and drier than Sydney, Australia. This also happens to be the UK’s most populated area, with about 18 million inhabitants packed into just 19,000 sq km, including London’s 1,500 sq km. And it’s drying up, fast. Government figures show that, in England, 28% of groundwater aquifers, the layers of porous sand and rock that hold water underground, and up to 18% of rivers and reservoirs, have more water taken out than is put back in. This is clearly unsustainable.”

In the years to come, climate change is likely to make things far worse: “More than half of the freshwater abstracted in the UK is for household use. The average British resident happily uses 153l of water a day, through showers, toilets, dishwashers, washing machines and garden hoses. Yet climate-change projections show that dry summers in England will increase by up to 50%, with the amount of water available reduced by at least 10-15%.”

Mr Smedley then goes on to say that water scarcity is now a global issue: “Freshwater shortages, once considered a local issue, are increasingly a global risk. In every annual risk report since 2012, the World Economic Forum has included water crisis as one of the top-five risks to the global economy. Half of the global population – almost 4 billion people – live in areas with severe water scarcity for at least one month of the year, while half a billion people face severe water scarcity all year round….

According to Torgny Holmgren, executive director at the Stockholm International Water Institute, “If these trends continue, we will need 50% more water in 2050 compared with 20 years ago. And, of course, that is impossible, because water is a finite resource … This will impact all of us.”…

In June 2021, Mami Mizutori, the UN secretary general’s special representative for disaster risk reduction, said: “Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic, and there is no vaccine to cure it.””

So what can be done? The first step it would appear is to make water wastage socially unacceptable so that the level of water abstraction (i.e. extraction) is reduced to a sustainable level: “Without significant action, the National Audit Office (NAO) forecasts that the total water demand will start to exceed supply in England no later than 2034. However, water companies have already been abstracting (extracting) too much water, leading to environmental degradation and the disappearance of rivers, including the internationally unique chalk streams of the south-east. A reduction of 480m litres a day is needed by 2045 just to lower existing groundwater abstraction to sustainable levels.”

Secondly, water utilities – the private companies that are given in many Western countries legal monopolies so that they supply clean water to the public – have to be pushed to invest more in their deliver systems: “Australian infrastructure firm Macquarie owned Thames Water between 2007 and 2017, leaving it with £2bn of debt, while paying its investors, according to one analysis, on average between 15.5% and 19% in dividends a year. Instead of making changes to a system that was supporting such poor levels of investment, in August 2021, Ofwat approved a new £1bn equity takeover of Southern Water. The new owner was Macquarie.”

Thirdly, more storage (or ‘water banks’ as Mr Smedley calls them) needs to take place of rainwater: “When I suggest that, after months of heavy winter rain, the public perception is, “Well, why wasn’t that banked somewhere?”, he quickly interjects: “There is no bank. We want a bank. We’ve been prevented from getting a bank for 20 years.”

Thames Water estimates that by 2045, it will need to find an extra 350m litres of water supply a day. The “bank” that they’ve wanted for 20 years is the long-planned but never built Abingdon reservoir. First proposed by Thames Water in 2006, it would be the largest major reservoir built in southern England since Rutland Water in 1976…

And fourthly, the way agriculture is practiced needs to change so that it becomes less water consumptive. Mr Smedley’s piece refers to the UK but he might as well be referring to India when he says: “Unlike in the western US, where artificial irrigation is necessary, farming in the UK is almost entirely rainfed. But the rains are becoming less and less reliable. James Alexander’s family has been farming in Oxfordshire for generations. “There’s no seasons any more,” he said. “For the last three years, we’ve just had wet and dry. It does get a little colder in the winter, but not like it used to … the last two winters have been two of the wettest on record, but actually that rain’s only fallen in about six weeks.”

It was May when I visited in 2021, and he asked, rhetorically: “Remember April showers? We only had 2mm of rain last month.” That’s why he now prefers no-till farming. He described conventionally ploughed fields as containing “sad soil”, simply a dead growing medium to hold the plants upright; many litres of pesticide and fertiliser need to be sprayed to grow anything in it. The topsoil also compacts under the constant heavy machinery, forming a hard cap layer, causing nearby roads to turn into muddy streams with each significant rainfall.

Out on the no-till field, meanwhile, his boots never get muddy. The soil forms an intricate sponge that soaks up water, both delivering it down to the groundwater and maintaining moisture for the crops. The undisturbed mycelial fungal network has been found to supply 80% of a crop’s nitrogen requirements and up to 100% of its phosphorus requirements, and to provide water to crops in times of drought.”

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