No rain? Share your neighbour's water
Guardian Professional, Monday 12 November 2012 06.00 EST
Large-scale water transfers have a bad rap for good reason. But faced
with shortages, more companies and governments are importing their
lifesource ï¿½ and doing it responsibly
Last April, its reserves depleted by Britain's worst drought in nearly
40 years, Anglian Water was hoping for rain. Summer lay ahead, and,
beyond that, the threat of an unprecedented third dry winter in a row.
If that were to happen, it would put a real strain on Anglian's
ability to meet the needs of its customers.
The company ï¿½ which services 27,000kmï¿½ in southeast England ï¿½ had
banned the use of hosepipes, but with no rain in sight, cutting usage
wasn't going to bridge the shortfall. There was no way around it:
Anglian would need more water to ride out a drought stretching into
To Anglian's west lies Severn Trent Water, whose district had not been
nearly so afflicted. The two companies began negotiations on the
transfer of water from one region to another. Their proposal would
have seen navigation canals and the River Trent used to transfer
enough water from Birmingham, in Severn Trent's area, to the Humber
Bank, in Anglian's, to supply 100,000 homes.
Heavy rains arrived before the scheme was enacted, and now, says Mike
Cook, Anglian's Head of Water Resources, the company's reserves are
recharged. But while it won't have to buy water from its neighbours
this year, the negotiations have prepared Anglian for dry spells in
years to come.
"The transfer that we developed could be used in the future, if
necessary," says Cook. "It's important that we be ready for the next
Small-scale water transfers have been occurring for decades in the UK.
But as population growth intensifies demand for water and climate
change threatens to disrupt supply, companies are starting to think
beyond local, ad hoc transactions. Last spring's drought left
England's water purveyors contemplating more frequent and formal
trading arrangements to ensure their districts never dry up.
A nationwide trading network may arrive next year as the UK Government
has mandated that water companies submit a long-term plan for managing
the country's resources by March 2013. While measures for reducing
consumption, such as repairing leaky infrastructure, will factor into
the plan, water swaps may well be central.
"The idea is to identify surplus within the system," says Luke DeVial,
head of environment and resources at Wessex Water. "Then all companies
can enter detailed negotiations and consider trading options."
A global water phenomenon
England isn't alone in pursuing transfers as a path to water security.
California has conveyed water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to Los
Angeles via aqueduct since 1913. Libya's Great Manmade River, the
world's largest underground network of pipes and ducts, moves 6.5
million cubic meters per day from an ancient aquifer beneath the
Sahara Desert ï¿½ enough water that one of the world's driest countries
aspires to export crops. And even Libya's system is dwarfed by China's
ongoing South-North water diversionproject, channels that would
transfer 23 trillion litres a year from the Yangtze and Han Rivers to
Beijing and Tianjin.
These hubristic undertakings, however, have traditionally led to steep
environmental costs. China's project has relocated hundreds of
thousands of people, and the Han River may eventually be bled dry by
canals. Diversions to cities in the southwestern US have reduced the
Colorado River at its delta to a swampy trickle. Water transfers in
Australia's Snowy Mountains have choked rivers with silt, spreading
invasive species and destroying fish populations.
Despite this dismaying record, England's water companies believe they
can promote ecological health rather than wreak havoc by using
transfers to comply with the Restoring sustainable abstraction
programme, an Environment Agency initiative to reserve water for
aquatic environments. Wessex Water, for example, agreed to reduce
abstraction by seven megalitres from the Chitterne Brook, an unusual
chalk stream that hosts juvenile trout. The company plans to
compensate for the lost abstraction by linking places in its water-
abundant south, like Dorchester and Shaftesbury, to Salisbury and
other points further upstream by 2018.
Climate change, which portends severe summertime drought and variable
rainfall, also motivates companies to pursue transfers. In 2010 United
Utilities completed its West East End Link, a 55km-long pipeline that
connects Manchester and the Lakes District so that water can move
between regions when one goes dry: "The pipeline's true test will come
as climate change kicks in," says Richard Blackwell, United's supply
and demand manager. "The link will be playing an important role in 100
Moving water between regions, however, is not without difficulty. Even
plans that use existing canals require new infrastructure ï¿½ pumping
stations to lift water over locks, new treatment facilities to process
increased volume ï¿½ which could impede cost-effectiveness. Companies
may be able to defray these energy expenses by diverting their water
through hydropower installations.
According to Roger Falconer, Professor of Water Management at Cardiff
University, England should look beyond its own borders to alleviate
scarcity. Citing a 2010 report by engineer John Lawson, Falconer
advocates flowing water from the River Severn to the Thames and
enlarging Wales' Craig Goch Reservoir in order to import water via the
River Wye. Says Falconer: "In principle, we could enact this plan
right now, using existing rivers and canals."
Beware the profiteering water-sellers
And while some Welsh environmental groups object to the export of
their water, other people see it as a path to prosperity. John Jones,
a former executive at Welsh Water, told the BBC last April that Wales'
best use of their abundant Hï¿½O might be to treat it like oil ï¿½ and
sell it, at a tidy profit, to their English neighbours.
If the UK needs a guide to the promise and peril of international
agreements, it should look to Southeast Asia. Singapore, which has few
water resources of its own, has long relied on Malaysia for its water;
it currently draws nearly 40% of supply from its neighbour and pays
very little for the privilege.
Yet while Singapore benefits from access to cheap Malaysian water, its
dependency is also a weakness that Malaysia exploits for political
leverage. To escape Malaysia's influence, Singapore has committed to
weaning itself off foreign water, opening wastewater and desalination
plants to ensure domestic supply.
Singapore isn't alone: even as some companies and countries employ
water transfers to mitigate against shortages, others focus on
conserving water within their own districts. Methods to capture
stormwater, such as aquifer storage and recovery, are gaining primacy
across the world, and greywater recycling will soon be standard
practice in dry regions.
And that's just the supply side. England's water companies are adamant
that demand-side measures will be integral pieces in the country's
forthcoming water plan.
Yet in a world increasingly dominated by climate change, they still
see transfers as vital insurance, a means of staying flexible and
resilient when rains vanish. "We can push and push on the demand side
to reduce leakage and consumption", says Anglian's Cook. "But climate
change will make it harder to recharge groundwater, and we're going to
need to pursue some bigger interconnections."
Ben Goldfarb is a master's student at Yale University and the editor
of Sage Magazine. This article also appears in a special Water Works
edition of Forum for the Future's Green Futures magazine.
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