Water, water everywhere – but not enough to drink?

It was a dark, cloud-crushed Bank Holiday Monday. A menacing, black thunderhead clung to the horizon, trailing gloomy layers of rain-heavy cloud. Then it started to rain. Soon thick bouncing blobs of water filled the sky as if someone had sliced open those oppressive, pregnant clouds.

Small streams began to form in the gutters, water rushed over the paths and into rapidly overfilling drains. I was soaked in seconds and engulfed in minutes. I made it to a bus shelter to escape the downpour to see a bus lurch past bearing a giant advert with a single, massive word: DROUGHT.

Against a backdrop of parched earth, Thames Water was telling a sodden London that we are officially in drought. Of course, a single day’s rain does not refill a water table that has been depleted by below average rainfall over the past two years. But it certainly made me wonder about the nature and history of drought in these rain swept, Atlantic islands.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised – London is, after all, a relatively dry place. It gets half the average rainfall per person of sunny Sydney and less rainfall per person than Rome, Istanbul and Dallas. London, the South East of England and big swathes of Eastern and Southern England are classed as suffering from serious water stress.

The standpipe summer of ‘76

No drought in living memory was as prolonged or pronounced as that experienced in the summer of 1976. Although Britain only reached a critical water shortage in the middle of 1976, drought conditions were evident as early as April 1975. A year of low rainfall meant that by April 1976 farmers across eastern England were reporting drought conditions, watching helplessly as soil turned to dust and blew away.

Meteorologists and hydrologists warned of an impending crisis and, backed by the data from Britain’s farms and water companies, the Government listened. The Drought Act 1976 was passed giving the water companies sweeping powers to restrict usage. The Government created a Cabinet Drought Committee and appointed Denis Howell as Minister in Charge of Drought Co-ordination. But still there was no rain.

A long and unbroken heat wave from 22 June 1976 to 26 August 1976 saw Britain transformed from a verdant green island to one of deadened brown and cracked earth. In Yorkshire and East Anglia, domestic water supplies were suspended and replaced with communal standpipes. Elsewhere, blanket hosepipe bands were imposed and some industries had to shorten the working week to cope with rationed supplied.

Some saw the funny side of it all – according to Martin Wainwright, the most “popular T-shirt/car sticker/badge that summer was ‘Save Water, Bath With A Friend’”.

Don’t bring out the cavalry

In 1911, Britain was suffering from the drought-inducing combination of low rainfall and heat wave temperatures. One response came from the British Army, which abandoned cavalry training. Whether this was out of a humane concern for the soldier or his horse is not clear.

Cricket enthusiasts can also point to 1911’s heat wave as having a direct impact on the results of the County Championships. The Championship was won by Warwickshire, the only time between 1890 and 1935 that the contest was not won by one of the ‘Big Six’ (Yorkshire, Surrey, Kent, Lancashire, Nottingham and Middlesex). The reason given was that the warm weather created fast pitches that well suited Warwick’s bowlers Frank Foster and Frank Field.

The baking temperatures made conditions in factories, mines and quarries particularly unbearable. Cotton mills and quarries in Lancashire shut down in the middle of the afternoon. But this was not an age that favoured the worker, and, to compensate, workers were expected to start work at first light – a savagely early 4.30am.

This being a still prudish Edwardian England, many bathing beaches were segregated according to sex. But Bexhill in Sussex attracted much excited comment for allowing mixed bathing.  Such modern thinking was not found everywhere – conservative Broadstairs in Kent had posters that announced:

“No female over eight years shall bathe from any machine except within the bounds marked for females” and “Bathing dresses must extend from the neck to the knees.”

Ten years later, Britain saw the first ever conviction for wasting water by washing a car when Joseph Gorton, a chauffeur, was fined 20 shillings. A Metropolitan Water Board inspector had noticed water pouring down the gutter of a mews in Belgravia. He soon found the cause: “a hose-pipe … thrown down by the side of it, the water still running”. The inspector noted that the water “was allowed to run to waste”.

What is to be done? 

The frequency of droughts increased as Britain moved into the new Millennium, with the country suffering water shortages in 2003, 2006, 2011 and 2012. Eastern England was particularly badly affected, with repeated hose pipe bans and restrictions on domestic and commercial water use. There have been calls for bold solutions, including:

The Environment Agency and the water companies prefer lower key ideas, such as infrastructure programmes to fix leakages and campaigns to encourage people to use less water in the home.

But Britain has never been afraid of major engineering projects to alleviate water shortages. One of the earliest was the New River, an artificial waterway built in the early seventeenth century to bring fresh water from Hertfordshire into the heart of a teeming and unsanitary London.

Travelling around 25 miles south from Ware to Clerkenwell, the New River was an engineering marvel that relied on gravity to push supplies southwards. The river drops an average of just 8cm per kilometre, a precision feat of engineering in an age of more rudimentary equipment.

Waterworks companies were formed around London in the eighteenth century, supplying their surrounding areas from large ponds. Nineteenth century companies such as the East London Waterworks Company and the Southwark and Vauxhall Waterworks Company joined their earlier rivals such as the Chelsea Waterworks Company and the Lambeth Waterworks Company. All would be subsumed into the Metropolitan Water Board upon nationalisation in 1902.

The nineteenth century was a period of urbanisation and pronounced strain on water supplies. Newly chartered town and city councils took it upon themselves to build vast chains of reservoirs to supply these burgeoning metropolises. Vast swathes of rural England were damned and huge chains of reservoirs created to ensure a safe and reliable water supply.

Whilst the Environment Agency’s position is that new large scale water transfer schemes are not needed, it should be remembered that water transfer is at the heart of Britain’s current water supply. Already water for Greater Manchester is brought from the Lake District, Liverpool and Birmingham get their water from the heart of the Welsh mountains and chains of reservoirs in the Pennines feed Tyne & Wear, Leeds and Sheffield. Boris Johnson used his Telegraph column to revive interest in the Grand Contour Canal, a plan from 1942 that would have seen a vast new canal following a contour at around 310 ft and connecting Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Southampton and London. It would also have acted as the backbone for a water grid on a national scale, allowing the bulk transfer of water from Wales and the north of England to the parched south.

2 thoughts on “Water, water everywhere – but not enough to drink?

  • Bill Ellson

    Pownall’s proposals for a Grand Contour Canal involve transferring water from the Lake District, not Scotland. The Wikipedia Grand Contour Canal article appears to be based on Boris’s article rather than any research.

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