Why the world needs to worry about water — and that includes us

If he were put in charge of aid policy for a day, Roger Boyes writes today in The Times, he would summon a staff meeting and shout: “Water! Water! Everywhere!” He adds: “It’s the problem that should be  bothering us all.” It isn’t only in the context of aid, however, that we should be worried about water.

The distinguished foreign affairs specialist is particularly bothered by the prospect of “water wars” in the Middle East, Africa and the Far East. Some of the mightiest rivers in the world — the Tigris and Euphrates, the Nile and the Mekong — are being dammed and their waters diverted, not only for the sake of hydroelectric power or other benefits, but also to exercise political control through what Boyes wittily calls “hydropolitik”.

Reckless wastage of aquatic resources has left one major country, Iran, “water bankrupt” and several others on the brink. Shortages are so severe in North Africa that Egypt has threatened to declare war on its southern neighbour if the projected “Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam” goes ahead, depriving those downstream on the Nile of the 500 cubic metres of drinking water per capita that is the minimum for survival. The Ethiopians are equally belligerent. As both countries have regular armies three times the size of our own and are armed to the teeth, the slaughter in such a water war would be, as Boyes rightly observes, “horrific”.

Yet scarcity of water is not the only problem the world faces. Many countries have too much of the stuff. Rising sea levels are one problem; tropical downpours are another. The recent sudden floods seen in Europe and China appear to be one of the consequences of our changing climate. In the case of the deluge that inundated the region where Germany and the Low Countries adjoin, advanced weather satellites accurately predicted which towns would suffer the worst impact. National and local authorities, by contrast, failed miserably to react to these warnings by evacuating the danger areas in time. The Continent’s worst floods in decades, which killed hundreds, were thus an avoidable disaster. The apportioning of blame may yet influence the result of September’s federal elections in Germany.

The politics of water is evidently here to stay. In the United Kingdom, there is a certain complacency about the threats both of water shortages and of floods. Droughts are usually filtered by the media through the familiar clichés of hosepipe bans and grumbling farmers. Floods are regrettable, yes, but they happen to other people who are foolish enough to live in low-lying areas, near rivers or by the sea. Yet Great Britain is an island in the Atlantic Ocean: we are at least as affected by climate change and sea levels as anywhere else. Notoriously, we talk about the weather more than any other nation. We ought not to grumble, though: to live in a temperate zone with mild winters and wet summers is a blessing for which we should give thanks.

One effect of the flash floods that affected parts of Britain this month has been to alert many people to the risks of ignoring the danger they pose to large urban conurbations. It has come as news to many Londoners, for example, that large parts of the capital are actually built on a flood plain. The Thames is, of course, a tidal river for 95 miles, as far as Teddington Weir. It was not until Victorian hydraulic engineering tamed old “Father Thames” that the risk of flooding receded. Even with the modern retractable barrier, built in 1974-84, to protect it from incoming tidal or storm surges in the North Sea, Europe’s largest city is by no means secure from flooding.

Beneath the streets of London Town, the 150-year-old drains bequeathed by Bazalgette are buckling under the strain of an ever larger population. They are not built to withstand sudden deluges from above. The problem has been exacerbated by decades of myopic municipal planning and countless individual decisions, resulting in the paving over of gardens, playing fields and other open spaces that absorb rain. The well-designed housing estates of the last century have been replaced by lucrative developments that take no account of environmental factors. A low-rise city of gardens and allotments is rapidly turning into a high-rise concrete jungle of windswept skyscrapers. Such a city is prey to flooding when the heavens open: inadequate drainage turns streets into canals and basements into sewers, because the water has nowhere else to go. One only has to live in a place like Manhattan to realise just how vulnerable such urban environments are.

The pandemic may yet prompt a pause in and rethink on development. Even existing offices, let alone new ones, have been rendered redundant by the working-from-home (WFH) phenomenon. If it becomes permanent, this is perhaps the biggest shift in patterns of work since Henry Ford invented the assembly line in 1913, more than a century ago.

The reduction in economic activity has, however, already proved to be temporary. A new study published today in the US journal Bioscience shows that while fossil fuel use and carbon emissions dipped slightly last year, current levels of greenhouse gases are setting new records. In fact, 2020 was the second hottest year in modern history. Cattle and other ruminant livestock now number more than 4 billion, producing unprecedented quantities of methane, while the pandemic did nothing to prevent the loss of more than a million hectares of the Amazon rainforest, another record in deforestation. Our natural planetary cooling system is, most scientists fear, unable to cope with this unrelenting pressure.

Now, then, is the time for HMG to act. There should be a Cabinet committee on water issues, including drainage, waste disposal and floods. The disgraceful custodianship of Southern Water, about which I wrote


, should not go unpunished. Our new, post-Brexit farming and countryside policies should take account not only of carbon emissions, but preserving the water table, changing weather patterns and the reform of agriculture and forestry to prioritise conservation rather than production.

“Water, water, every where. / Nor any drop to drink.” These lines, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, are among the most famous in the English language. They are, as Roger Boyes implies, prophetic. But the next line — “The very deep did rot” — points to the more fundamental challenge that humanity faces. There is something rotten about the attitude of some of the world’s most powerful countries, not just to the problem of managing water, but to the conservation of our environment more generally. One does not need to be a climate alarmist to be appalled by China’s ruthless disregard of common sense on pollution and carbon emissions. At the Glasgow COP26 conference in November, someone — perhaps Boris Johnson? — should quote Benjamin Franklin’s remark as he and his fellow founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence: “We must all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

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