Britain has been battered by floods and parched by droughts in recent summers. But if we had a national water grid, we could cope with both, argues David Lush

Are we really serious about sustainability? Most of us treat climate change as crucial to our future, but as the poor relation in terms of taking remedial action. Radical decisions need to be made now and they can be structured to maintain our lifestyle standards.

Water is the fundamental sustainability issue. Without drinkable water there is no future; it is crucial for life and our economic infrastructure. We need a national clean water supply 365 days a year, based on the efficient use of available resources. This requires the construction of a nationwide water grid, which the government opposes. A grid would also offer insurance against future changes in rainfall patterns.

Government expresses concern at the shortage of drinkable – or any – water in many parts of the world, particularly in Africa, and contributes to alleviating the problems. But why should any water shortages occur in the UK, sometimes reaching drought conditions?

In 2006, a fifth of the British population was affected by drought-like conditions and told the situation could be expected to recur. The Environment Agency produced a drought plan last April, but it ignores how such conditions might be avoided.

This is a disgrace in the UK, which has ample rainfall for the water needs of the population. This year’s floods illustrate that our infrastructure requires big investment for both flood and drought conditions.

We are exhorted to save water and accept regulations for reducing water use in new buildings, because of alleged rainfall shortages. These measures only nibble at the problem and obscure two basic facts:

  • In many instances, a reduction in the water utilities’ leakage rates would make up the shortfall
  • There is a valid alternative of a country-wide water grid.

The timeframe for action is short – 10 to 15 years according to the Stern report on the economics of climate change, published last October. While other sustainability issues may require a longer timescale, a water grid could be provided in this period.

Past enquiries about government support for a water grid have elicited responses such as “it would cost too much” and “the pumping energy would increase carbon dioxide emissions”. Recently, several consultation papers on water supply and demand have offered these opinions and others such as “insufficient rainfall” and “environmental damage”. But many of these arguments are disingenuous.

One Environment Agency consultation on water resources, conducted last July, quotes a figure of £9-15bn for a grid and says it is four to 10 times the cost of developing resources locally. But this estimated cost for a grid, spread over 10 to 15 years, is less than the Stern report’s estimate and the long-term benefits would far outweigh the initial cost. The consultation also concedes that the average 25% leakage rate won’t be reduced before 2030.

As for energy, the power requirements of a grid would be no more than 0.4% of existing generating capacity, with carbon emissions being lower owing to intermittent use.

Privatisation of the water utilities provided the exchequer with a massive windfall and moved future expenditure into the private sector; now the government needs to take the lead and share the necessary costs with the utilities companies. The Climate Change Bill is one route for implementing such a project.

Surely it is time to consider upgrading our water, road and transport infrastructure to be worthy of the needs of the 21st century.