Drought hits UK as officials ‘prepare for worst’

Months before summer, much of Britain is already officially in drought. If rains don’t come soon, it could be the worst such crisis in 35 years. Can the famously damp UK really be drying out?

Britain is famous for rain. The umbrella, the drenched barbeque, the soggy beach-side holiday – these are as much a part of the country’s character as fish and chips or milky tea. Grumbling about the weather is practically the national sport.

And yet, even in chilly February, the UK government this week called an emergency summit to discuss not fog or flooding – but drought.

Under the grey winter skies, Britain is in the grip of an environmental crisis. Reservoirs and lakes are drying up. Fragile chalk streams in the South East have shrunk to muddy trickles, or disappeared entirely. Hardworking civil servants from the Environment Agency have been scrambling to rescue stranded fish and transfer them to safer waters.

And things are only likely to get worse. Without a good period of heavy rain before the summer, meteorologists are warning that the UK could face its worst drought since the notorious dry spell of 1976, when water shortages destroyed millions of acres of cropland, shut down factories, and transformed thousands of once-lush gardens into miniature versions of the Sahara desert.

Hosepipes and sprinklers were banned. The use of dishwashers was strictly discouraged. The country’s new motto? ‘Save water; bath with a friend.’ Now, officials have admitted they are once again preparing for the worst.

But how can such a notoriously wet island really be out of water? The answer is twofold: first, it is an island which is home to 60 million people, all of whom use an extraordinary amount of water both in their daily lives and through the goods and services they consume. Water for homes and factories is sucked straight out of lakes, rivers and streams.

Second, there actually is enough water – it just falls in the wrong place. While reservoirs in the South and East of Britain are drying up, those in the North and West are overflowing, as clouds from the Atlantic dump their watery loads on the regions’ hillier ground.

High and dry

A succession of planners and politicians, over the years, have looked at this problem and seen a simple solution. Why not build a pipeline, they wonder, to bring water from the wet North to the drought-stricken South? It would be an ambitious and expensive project, for sure, but necessary if southerners want to keep their sprinklers, showers and swimming pools from running dry.

Many environmentalists disagree. This is typical greedy thinking, they say: rather than trying to make do with less of the world’s scarce resources, people work out how they can keep on using more – whatever the long term cost.

You Decide

  1. Should Britain pipe water from the North to the South?
  2. ‘Science, technology and engineering will solve almost all our problems in the end.’ True or false?

Activities

  1. In a severe drought, how much of your water use would you be prepared to cut? Make a list of things you would sacrifice – and things you would keep whatever the cost.
  2. Divide the class into two groups. One group should come up with arguments against sustainable living, and the other should think of arguments for it. Which side is stronger?

Some People Say...

“If humans don’t learn to use less of natural resources, the species is doomed.”

What do you think?

Q & A

This all sounds very worrying!
Things could be worse. Drought in Britain just means some lost crops and ruined gardens. In somewhere like East Africa – which has been suffering from drought for months – it means tens of thousands dead. Meanwhile, in places like Pakistan, Israel or the Far East, conflict over water causes huge international problems and could even lead to war.
I also read that Britain is forecast rain in the next few days. Why won’t that fix the problem?
When rain falls it is stored in man-made reservoirs and natural aquifers (like huge rocky sponges under the earth). These sources then keep the rivers flowing and the taps running. They are also huge: a few days of rain is – so to speak – just a drop in the bucket.

Word Watch

Meteorologists
Nothing to do with rocks from space, meteorologists are scientists who study the weather. Using high powered computers and sophisticated mathematical models, they are able to predict weather events a few days or weeks in advance – at least most of the time.
Acre
An acre is a unit of area used in the ‘imperial system’ of weights and measures. It is a bit less than the size of a football pitch. In the more common ‘metric system’, the closest equivalent is a hectare.
Shut down factories
Industrial usage accounts for a huge amount of water consumption worldwide. Factories need water for things like cooling down motors and generators, driving turbines and washing plant machinery.
Expensive
The cost of piping water from North to South would be measured in more than just pennies and pounds. The energy spent on pumping would contribute to global warming, while pipeline construction would disrupt the environment.

Subjects

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