Just round the corner from where I live there is a large space of grass known – unsurprisingly – as “the Green”. Except that right now it is not green. It’s brown. Instead of the local council cutting the grass every 10 days or so, there is nothing to cut on this enormous bone-dry and dusty playing field, because this has been a record hot and dry few months in the south of England.
Less than a kilometre away we have a family allotment. It’s a small patch among communal gardens where, like many of our neighbours, we grow vegetables and fruits – peas, beans, potatoes, raspberries, apples, pears and gooseberries are the most common, but also lavender and herbs. Our greenhouse is bursting with tomatoes and cucumbers. But again, the problem is water.
The use of hosepipes is banned in the allotment area, which means that every greenhouse has one or two water butts to collect rainwater from the roof – but without rain, obviously, there has been no rainwater. There are communal taps that we use to fill our watering cans to ensure the fruits and vegetables do not die in the heat, but this is very time-consuming and a bit boring.
And yet we are lucky.
An hour’s drive away in the Kent village of Challock, residents were without water for almost a week. The taps ran dry. The school was closed. The village hall acted as a dispensing centre for bottled water and the water company appeared to suggest residents had been using too much water.
Truly, in England we all use too much water. We tend to be careless about this precious natural resource. There’s a water meter in our house, so we pay for the water we use. But half the homes in England and Wales still do not to have a meter. The Observer newspaper reported that metered homes use 33 litres a day less than the average of other homes, 141 litres a day. Many of us this hot dry summer have been wondering how can this island in north-western Europe, a land proud to be surrounded by water, be suffering from a water shortage.
Complacency is part of the answer. It’s certainly complacent to assume that unmetered water supplies mean consumers pay attention to how much they use since even if they leave the taps running constantly, without a meter the bills remain the same.
Universal metering is, therefore, one obvious answer. A second answer would be to penalise water companies that do not fix the ancient leaky water pipes. The British government’s national infrastructure committee warned four years ago that unless something was done about increasing investment in water supplies and solving the loss of nearly 3 billion litres of water every day through old pipes then at some point there will be an acute water crisis.
It happened to us when the old pipes into our house – lead pipes, probably 100 years old – leaked so much our bills shot up. Eventually the water company did fix the pipes and gave us a refund, but there are probably tens of thousands of other houses with similar problems, and if their water supply is not metered they will not notice.
Apart from an occasional rain shower, the drought continues. Farmers worry that yields of sweet corn, sugar beet, potatoes and other vegetables as well as grass for animal feed means shortages and price rises this autumn. Newspapers report wildfires and record temperatures around the world and that warning signs about climate change have become ever more obvious.
A new book titled Hothouse Earth, published this week by Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, argues that humankind may have passed the point of no return. If Mr McGuire is right then 50°C temperatures will be more common in the warmest countries and England’s 40°C summer will go from being an unusual record set in a freak year to become the new normal.
Drought and crop failures will cause political unrest. Global population movements will increase. The Atlantic current, the Gulf Stream, which takes warm water from the tropics towards Northern Europe is already weakening. It could fail entirely by the end of this century.
All this used to be dismissed as Project Fear, especially by some with a vested interest in a carbon-fuelled economy. Increasingly it is our worldwide reality – Project Fact. And it also comes with the passing in the past few days of James Lovelock, one of the great heroes of the Green movement. Lovelock wrote and spoke eloquently of Gaia, the idea that the whole of planet Earth is one single biological system in which human life shapes the environment rather than the other way around.
Humans sometimes talk of “seven deadly sins” – usually pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath and sloth. There is now an eighth deadly sin: complacency. From the failed water supply to Kent villages to wildfires in California and Australia or dried up river beds in Italy and India, we do not need a wake-up call. We need an alarm bell.