Water in the Balance: As Southeast England Mops Up after Another Bout of Serious Flooding, Last Year's Drought Seems a World Away. but It Raises the Question-How Can We Reconcile Floods and Droughts and Give the Country Some Form of Hydrological Stability? Professor Paul Younger Suggests a Solution
Younger, Paul, Geographical
The southeast of England has taken a hydrological battering in recent years, with prolonged periods of drought punctuated by intense storms that have led to repeated, widespread flooding. As I reflect on recent hydrological extremes in the region, it's difficult to resist the temptation to say 'I told you so'--albeit mine was but the least of the voices, a decade and more ago, that were warning decision-makers about precisely the sorts of conditions now faced by residents of the region.
These warnings--which I take no pleasure in seeing realised--were based on analyses of two human-made phenomena: climate change and over population. Neither of these show any sign of abating in the foreseeable future, so it's vital that we find a way to adapt to them.
I was fortunate enough to work on predictions of the impact of climate change during the early days of the science. Our early work, funded by the European Commission in 1993, considered the potential impacts of climate change into the first few decades of the 21st century. We analysed three scenarios: 'worst case', in which there would be no abatement of the rate of increase in greenhouse-gas emissions; 'median', which assumed that governments worldwide would actually achieve something along the lines of the original aspirations of the Kyoto protocols, and a wildly optimistic scenario of a 'fossil free' future commencing promptly during the mid-1990s.
The predictions clearly showed that the south of England could expect more periods of drought, while the north would get wetter. Subsequent analyses by colleagues, using more sophisticated models, indicated that these changes would probably be accompanied by increased storminess and growing year-to-year variability. And depressingly enough, nearly 20 years later, the weather we've been experiencing lately has pretty much tracked the upper boundary curve of 'worst-case scenario' conditions.
In parallel with the changing climate, national governments of all complexions have only deepened the void of responsibility for water-resources management that was created by the privatisation of the water industry in ]989. Where the UK previously had a Water Resources Board charged with taking a strategic overview of the requirements to achieve integrated management of water within and among catchments, in the post-privatisation world, no organisation has had any such responsibility.
The National Rivers Authority and its successor, the Environment Agency, have occasionally tried to provide constructive overviews and recommendations, but they can't prescribe solutions, and it's left to individual water companies to develop their own strategies to ensure security of supply for their customers.
Back when I worked for a water company during the 1990s, I once suggested that we ought to oppose a proposed large development in a water-scarce area on the logical grounds that we had no idea where we would get the extra water from. The response from senior management was swift and simple: 'We never turn down an opportunity to increase the number of our customers.' Fifteen years later, the same company is locked in a dispute with the Environment Agency, which believes that the company's licensed abstractions in the area far exceed even the most liberal estimates of the quantity of water available for exploitation. Plus ca change.
Nowhere has the vacuum of responsibility for water-resources planning become more profound than in the southeast of England, where we're now reaping the consequences of reckless governmental decisions made years ago. As far back as 2001, the Environment Agency was warning that 'in an average year, there is less water per person in England and Wales than in Spain or Portugal. In parts of the South and East of England, there is less per person than in Ethiopia or Sudan. …