If the UK is to survive the worst effects of climate change, it needs strong infrastructure to protect its citizens from the coming meteorological threats. By all scientific estimates, our future as a greenhouse will be one of increasingly uncomfortable extremes: more intense heat, rising summer temperatures, heavier storms, rising sea levels — and, of course, worse droughts. These effects are ripe for the future, scientists have warned us time and time again. Because of the massive amount of greenhouse gases we’ve already pumped into the atmosphere, we have no way of avoiding these changes. We can only try to deal with them.
Our response to the current severe water shortages therefore gives us an opportunity to assess how well we are preparing for upcoming weather-related disasters. In short, can we gain some confidence in our ability to fight climate change the way our water companies are trying to fight the drought that is now plaguing the country? The answer is simple and disappointing. Judging from the water industry, we look undeniably unfit for the battle ahead.
Certainly the images of dry meadows and empty reservoirs that have filled our television screens and newspapers for the past week show that we have learned very little about maintaining an orderly national water supply. . No major reservoir has been built in England since Kilder Water Dam was built in 1981. Thus, our ability to store freshwater remains constant as its demand continues to increase with population growth.
The inability to adapt water storage to the needs of the population had serious consequences. First, it has forced us to pump more water from groundwater sources. This has stressed aquifers, lowered water levels in many areas and threatened chalk streams. This latest threat is of particular concern as chalk streams are among the rarest habitats on the planet – and the vast majority in England.
The failure to collect and store water is also a concern as the land becomes wetter. The early effects of climate change mean that the period 2011-2020 was 9% wetter in terms of precipitation than the period 1961-1990. So there is no shortage of water that we can collect. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have the urge to do so.
If we then manage to capture and store water, we waste it. England’s largest water and sanitation company, Thames Water, 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 a day. That’s enough to fill 240 Olympic-size swimming pools and almost a quarter of the water they supply. For the whole of England and Wales, the daily loss – through leaks and other damage – is 3 billion liters of water from all the major water companies in the two countries, accounting for a fifth of their total supply.
Especially at a time when we experience empty reservoirs, hose bans and visions of burnt gardens, parks and playgrounds, such amazing recklessness seems unforgivable. Worse, the analysis shows that while water bills have increased significantly over the past three decades, water company spending on improved infrastructure has at best stayed the same or decreased, depending on how you break the numbers down. Hence the intensity of our current drought, it is argued.
Also, the water company’s shareholders were paid huge dividends, while their CEOs were generously rewarded for their work. Sarah Bentley, chief executive of Thames Water, has a base salary of £750,000 and a huge annual bonus. Other water company CEOs have been rewarded with similar generosity, with a recent analysis showing water company CEOs in England have earned a total of £34m over the past two years. However, critics argue that these individuals do little more than serve as senior civil servants.
These companies were the main beneficiaries of the 1989 privatization of large English water companies imposed by the Conservative government. The move was welcomed by Margaret Thatcher and her ministers, which would ensure greater investment in the industry while reducing consumer spending. Prices. In fact, the opposite has happened. At the same time, a national resource owned by foreign investors is being depleted. For example, a huge chunk of Thames water has been bought by financial groups from China, Abu Dhabi and Kuwait.
Such investments are unlikely to be made for charitable purposes, it should be noted. They must have come about because the dividend seemed attractive to investors. So something that should be treated as a national resource and core safeguard against climate change was sold for short-term financial gain.
This is not the way to invest in infrastructure or build insurance against climate change reversal. The lessons we can learn from our drought response are profound. We are not only prepared in terms of piping, reservoirs and leak prevention. We are also financially and politically wrong in our approach to the climate crisis, which is sure to worsen in the coming years.