Our taps could run dry and greedy bosses – who waste 450,000 Olympic swimming pools of water a year – should be prosecuted, writes singer turned anti-pollution campaigner FEARGAL SHARKEY
The water situation is a disaster, writes FEARGAL SHARKEY
Just imagine turning on your tap and no water comes out. At first you suspect there is some problem with your plumbing and you try another tap. Again, no water.
By now, you’re a bit worried, and so you pop round to your neighbour with a jug, asking if they can fill it up for you. As it happens, they tell you that they also have no water and, what’s more, they have been phoned by another neighbour who has the same problem.
Within minutes, the full situation becomes horribly clear — your entire London neighbourhood has no water whatsoever. In fact, the situation is even worse than that — the whole city is almost completely out of water.
For the next month, Londoners, and many millions more across the South East, have to queue for their water rations from stopcocks in the street.
Predictably, panic buying strips the shelves of bottled water. Baths are forbidden and showers are permitted for only one minute. Fights break out between neighbours when cars look suspiciously clean and flowerbeds too healthy.
In short, the situation is a disaster.
You may think that such a near apocalyptic scenario is unlikely, but I can assure you it is very likely indeed — and there’s a good chance it could happen very soon.
For unless drastic action is taken, I believe that London and much of the South East will run out of water by 2040.
And you don’t have to take my word for it — no less a body than the National Audit Office recently stated: ‘If more concerted action is not taken now, parts of the South and South East of England will run out of water within the next 20 years.’
In fact, the situation is now so bad that London is ranked No 9 in the world on the list of cities most likely to run out of drinking water.
This is a list that includes places such as Bangalore and Sao Paulo.
So why is this happening? And what can be done about it?
Empty shelves that usually stock bottled water at a Sainsburys supermarket on September 19, 2021 in London, England
FEARGAL SHARKEY: During a water shortage, fights break out between neighbours when cars look suspiciously clean and flowerbeds too healthy
As a keen fisherman, I have been campaigning for clean rivers ever since the chalk stream where I fish in North London was polluted some years ago by the local water company, with illegal discharges of sewage. My campaign is now on a national level and it is not just about sewage, but also about the fragility of our water supply.
The biggest problem has been a complete lack of political oversight of the water industry and a total failure to regulate it. The issue of water shortage has been discussed for decades and nobody has done a thing about it.
Worse still, the driving motivation for all too many of the bosses of water companies appears to be not to improve the environment or to secure London’s water supply, but rather to trouser obscene salaries and bonuses.
Over the weekend, The Mail on Sunday revealed that during the past financial year, three of Britain’s largest water companies paid their bosses almost £9 million between them despite coming under fire over pollution and leaks.
I should stress that this has been going on for years — the water companies have paid out a whopping £50 million to their chief executives since 2015.
These people really do not deserve their pay because they have shown a complete lack of leadership. There has been a woeful lack of investment, incompetent planning and strategy, and a failure to build the infrastructure needed to secure water supplies.
For example, there has not been a reservoir built in the South of England since 1976. Instead of investing their profits, the water companies simply pay it out to their executives and their shareholders.
Another factor behind the looming crisis is a lack of rainfall. In the South East of England, the average annual rainfall now stands at 500mm to 600mm — which makes it drier than South Sudan, or Perth, Western Australia.
East Anglia is now officially classified as a semi-arid zone, and yet is used to grow potatoes, a particularly thirsty crop that consists of 80 per cent water. As we start to face the reality of droughts in the UK, we have to realise that water is becoming ever more precious.
And then there are the leaks. A staggering 3.1 billion litres of water is wasted through leakage every day. That’s 1.1 trillion litres a year, or 452,600 Olympic swimming pools.
That’s the amount of water used by 21 million people in this country per year — enough not only to supply London twice over, but to cover the estimated additional 1.7 billion litres per day that the South East will require by 2050. And it is all lost through rank incompetence.
And what’s done about it? Almost nothing. Running repairs are made here and there, but there is no concerted effort to deal with what is a national disgrace.
I would go further than say that most water companies are simply greedy and useless. I agree with those who say that we should now be bringing prosecutions under proceeds-of-crime legislation against any executives who have knowingly and wilfully devastated the environment for commercial gain.
As well as bringing such an action — and here, I know that many Mail readers may not agree with me — I think that the water supply needs to be brought back under government control.
I accept that renationalisation is a dirty word for many, but I can see no other solution, as the water companies have shown that they cannot be trusted with our most precious resource, and regulators such as Ofwat and the Environment Agency are toothless and have proved themselves ineffective when holding them to account.
We, as individuals, also have a responsibility to deal with our profligacy with water. In the UK, we each use around 142 litres a day.
However, some counties are worse than others. The average person in Hertfordshire, for example, uses 174 litres a day, and this has led to over-extraction by the water companies from the massive underground natural aquifer that supplies our precious chalk streams — which are now drying up in the area. This year, the top nine miles of the county’s River Ver have now completely disappeared.
In fact, we consume more than twice the amount of water per head than is used in some of the Baltic countries, where people get by on around 61 to 77 litres a day. In my experience, I don’t think Estonians have a personal hygiene problem, so why do we in the UK need so much? Perhaps we are in love with washing our cars.
There are lots of things we can do to save water, such as not running the tap when we brush our teeth, or taking a bucket into the shower with us, and using that to water flower and vegetable beds.
But, of course, people are not willing to make such changes if they are not shown leadership by politicians, regulators and the industry. I can understand why people may not wish to make sacrifices if the water companies themselves are leaking billions of litres a day, and discharging sewage into our rivers and lakes.
In the meantime, the next time you turn on a tap, please realise that what comes out of it cannot be taken for granted. For one day soon, nothing may come out of it at all.