Water, water, everywhere: not allowed to use it

Saturday 20 October, 3.30pm until 5.00pm, Garden Room

The hosepipe ban introduced in England earlier this year was the signal for it to rain for months on end. Soaked commuters on London platforms faced posters of cracked dry earth stating: ‘none of us can make it rain but we can all use less water’. Thames Water even resorted to sending ‘drought speakers’ into schools to educate children in using less water and to pester their wasteful, albeit squeaky-clean, parents into changing their behaviour. No wonder there was popular resentment and widespread scepticism about the so-called ‘drought’ whatever the realities of low rainfall over the last two years. Nevertheless, on an international level, there has been much talk of a global water crisis in addition to fears of water wars erupting over this sought-after resource.

The United Nations Development Programme says that water scarcity is ‘rooted in power, poverty and inequality, not in physical availability’. Throughout history rivers have been diverted to supply water to where it is needed and in London a new desalination plant, built despite the objections of no-flush Ken Livingstone, now supplies a million people with fresh water. So, why in Britain today is something so apparently plentiful as water in such short supply? The Romans were master builders of aqueducts, and a 500 kilometre-long water pipeline was built a century ago in Western Australia. Modern engineering should make accessibility to clean water even easier. In the twenty-first century, why can’t we move water from sodden Scotland to scorched Sussex? Is the problem that rural communities with plenty of water would resent sending it to those thirsty tennis court-watering London city types? Or is water just too darn cheap?

Should we consider water a commodity rather than a human right? Just because something is essential, why should that make it cheap? A higher price would surely be the spur for people to value and use water as they would any paid-for, vital and finite resource. But sceptics say we risk irreversible damage to natural water supplies and the environment if we hike up the price and enable expensive water transfer systems and costly desalination plants to simply satisfy our demands for beautiful golf greens. Should we accept that we need to turn off the tap or might paying a bit more for unlimited quantities and guilt-free daily power showering be worth the price?

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Chris Binnie
independent water consultant; member, ICE Water Expert Panel; fellow, Royal Academy of Engineers

Dr Caspar Hewett
Lecturer in civil engineering at Newcastle University, and director of The Great Debate

David Lloyd Owen
managing director, Envisager; author, The Sound of Thirst

Andy Wales
senior vice president, sustainable development, SABMiller

Craig Fairnington
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer

Produced by
Craig Fairnington associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; university finance and accommodation officer
Angus Kennedy convenor, The Academy; author, Being Cultured: in defence of discrimination
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