* This article appeared on our Huff Post column, 9th May 2012 *
“It cannot be repeated often enough that there is no shortage of water in Britain. We divert only a small fraction of the throughput of our water cycle for human purposes. We use less than 1% of total UK rainfall and less than 10% in the South East.“ GMB Union National Officer Gary Smith
When in 1991, the late Kirsty MacColl gave up her garden for a rain & sewage recycling reedbed, cistern, and pond system for a BBC TV programme, Don’t Go Near the Water, she was doing more than just demonstrating the latest in sustainable water management (now known as SUDS – Sustainable Drainage). She was making a philosophical statement: that by retaining all the rain and wastewater on her property, she could actually take responsibility for it, and also benefit from it – basic concepts completely lost then and still apparently now, on our privatised water industry and its regulators.
“These could be built on a community basis; like a water garden that the public could enjoy,” said Julian Jones, designer of MacColl’s system in the programme. And patch up great holes neglected by the unnatural water company monopolies, was also the intention. The concept is now in the latest UK & EU water legislation; and some variant of SUDS is the normal requirement for any major new development, but is not yet applied to wider river catchments, or in any way that might threaten water company interests.
Jones’ voluntary group, Water21 (which includes many post-graduate students), still labours on as a part of the Agenda 21 ‘community led’ process arising from the 1992 Rio Earth Conference. The intention two decades ago, and still now, is of ‘taking responsibility’, because as Jones puts it, “no-one in authority will”. The intent of the latest legislation is precisely that; but progress is painfully slow, hindered by the vested interests of water companies and inactive regulators, rigid in their protection of antiquated concepts of Victorian water and sewerage monopolies.
The original SUDS reedbed concept of capturing sewer run-off arose from the bitter experience of the Stroud child meningitis clusters during the 1980s. Cutbacks in infrastructure spending meant over 50 storm sewage-overflows then discharged into local streams. Post privatisation, the overflows were blocked up – resulting in fractured sewers and further uncontrolled discharges, but now into fields and gardens.
Notions such as health standards for water courses, or the discharges into them, are still alien to our water regulators – even where adjacent river-weirs spray sewage air particulates over nearby communities after rainfall. It turns out the Water Industry isn’t really regulated in the public interest at all; but rather, for protecting a range of commercial vested interests. The concept of holistic catchment management, where capturing rainwater against dry spells should be common sense, is still not remotely the norm.
The original Victorian water management regime did include many common sense aspects of infrastructure and land management: now lost, all because they do not suit ‘big business’. The dereliction of a myriad small town water reservoirs and cisterns that once captured rain; millponds with hydropower that stored and controlled water; but worst of all, of over 50 years of chemical farming that has, in many areas like Stroud, severely degraded our soils ability to store rainfall – that all together are the main reasons we now swing wildly from flood to drought, and that we continually have higher-than-inflation bills for water.
Yet, where Water21 is working in the treacherously steep Slad Valley – following the 2007 (one in 25 year) flood of up to 9 ft deep – we find that by storing water dispersed throughout the landscape in small lakes, over 300% of a one in 75 year flood can be stored. And made use of, these, and some restoration of the historic mill ponds, can actually produce around an extra £250,000 per annum in hydropower, fisheries, and dramatically improved agricultural productivity: in just 14 square kilometers or 6% of the Stroud Valleys. That’s over £100 million of local wealth lost to the local community in the wider catchment since the scheme was first proposed.
And that, apparently, is the very least of it… all representing profound failures in planning, protection of the public interest and comprehension of natural principles.