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The Great Debate: Development, Sustainability and Environment

Water Resources and the Future
Proceedings of a debate held on 17 March 2007 as part of
Development, Sustainability and Environment 3

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Speakers: Hayley Fowler, Ray Heslop and Caspar Hewett

The chair, Viv Regan, welcomed the audience and introduced the central questions of the debate:

  • What are the issues surrounding water resources and how they should be managed?
  • What are the causes of drought and how can we combat them?
  • How can we ensure that this and future generations have access to the water they need?
  • .

    She went on to introduce the three speakers:

    Hayley Fowler Dr. Hayley Fowler is Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Research Fellow in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, where she has worked since 2001. She is a hydro-climatologist and looks at the effects of global warming and natural climate variability on water resource system reliability, particularly floods and droughts. She has a particular interest in recent changes in extreme weather and whether they are caused by global warming. Her work has concentrated in the UK and Europe, but she has recently started work looking at the impacts of global warming on water availability in the Himalayas and the effects on glaciers.

    Ray Heslop is a water engineer who has worked in the water industry for 36 years. A founder member of the Northumbrian WaterAid Committee in 1982, Ray has since worked as a voluntary adviser to WaterAid’s programmes in Kenya, Zambia and Pakistan. He is currently involved with WaterAid’s Technical Enquiry Service as an Engineering Adviser.

    Caspar Hewett Dr. Caspar Hewett is Director of The Great Debate, an organisation he founded in 1998. Over the last nine years he has been involved in water resources research working in the UK, South Africa, Serbia and Macedonia. He is currently a guest member of staff at Newcastle University’s Institute for Research on Environment and Sustainability (IRES) and is working in partnership with IRES on development of the Education for Sustainable Development programme. He is also doing consultancy work for the Environment Agency and is organising a major workshop on Science and Society in the 21st Century for NESTA which takes place in March 2007.

    Hayley Fowler gave a very measured introduction outlining what the impacts of climate change on water resources are likely to be. Research suggests that we can expect the weather to exhibit increased vigour due to climate change. This means that we would expect there to be more droughts and floods. Southern Europe in particular is likely to experience much hotter weather while the UK can expect two types of drought due to changes in rainfall patterns. Looking to the future she argued that it is possible for us to intervene to reduce climate change and reducing emissions could play a large part in this. Emphasising that we have a chance to change things she also argued that in the UK we really need to look closely at our water use and should work towards reducing demand.

    Ray Heslop focused his introduction on the inequities that exist with regard to access to water. In many parts of the world there are severe shortages of water. However, there is as much water now as ever – the water is there but usually in the wrong place at the wrong time. He drew attention to the problems in how governments deal with water shortages, contrasting government inactivity on the one hand and interference on the other He objected to the way Western governments talk about stabilising indigenous peoples, saying that governments should not be doing this in this day and age.

    Moving on to some facts and figures, Heslop pointed out that in the UK the average water use is about 160 litres per head per day, and in the USA the figure goes up to a staggering 450 litres per day. This is in sharp contrast to the 10 litres per day average that is found in Tanzania. In the last decades the world population has doubled but there has been a corresponding six fold increase in water consumption. While we live on a planet with huge amounts of water, 97% of it is saline (in the seas and oceans) and is thus not suitable to drink. On top of this a large percentage of the world’s fresh water is inaccessible – it is in the wrong place at the wrong time. Thus only a fraction of a percent of the Earth’s water is available for consumption and we have to bear this in mind when we consider the question of water resources for human use. Today a billion people in the world have no access to clean water and that is a real challenge for us to deal with. One of the Millenium Development Goals is to reducing this by half over the next two decades and something of the order of £10 billion per year will be needed to achieve that goal. Thus he appealed for contributions to WaterAid to support this effort explaining that WaterAid campaign for the human right to sanitation and water supply.

    Caspar Hewett wanted to look at how the whole discussion of water resources and of the impacts of climate change is infused with a culture of limits that is hugely problematic. He argued that it is inexcusable that anyone living in the 21st century is at the mercy of nature or has to cope with shortages of water. Drought is a social problem, not a natural one. Floods may occur naturally, but they need not be disasters. At the heart of these two things is the problem of uneven development that characterises the world we live in. This is a human problem symptomatic of a lack of vision and a lack of belief in our own future. In the North East of England there is a skewed view of the water resources issue because there is more than enough water for the regions needs thanks to the reservoirs in the area, in particular Kielder water. This illustrates and important point in that Kielder was completed some 25 years ago and is the last reservoir to be built on that scale in Britain. Pointing out that Britain is a water rich developed country, Hewett wanted to know how we can excuse the yearly round of drought warnings in the South East. He argued that there are solutions –building reservoirs, fixing dilapidated infrastructure, introducing a national grid for water and building desalination plants (we are an island surrounded by salt water that could be transformed into potable water). However there is a lack of willingness to implement these measures.

    Drawing attention to recent discussions over Thames Water’s plans for the South East, Hewett questioned the resistance to plans for a new reservoir near Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Similarly there has been opposition to proposals to build a desalination plant in East London which have been taken up by the mayor of London Ken Livingstone who claimed that it is unsustainable and that it ‘sends the wrong message to consumers.’ Contrasting these contemporary discussions focused on reducing demand with the Victorians’ approach which was to build infrastructure on a massive scale, he argued that the problem today is a lack of belief in our own society. The Victorians believed in their society and had a sense of themselves that was very forward looking – they put in infrastructure intended to last 100 or more years because they were confident that their society would still be around. He wondered what hope the developing world has if such a limited view is taken of the possibilities for creating infrastructure.

    Hewett moved on to the opportunities opened up to communities in developing countries by ready access to water and the matter of people being at the mercy of nature – which is particularly important when considering what might happen as a consequence of climate change. Telling an anecdote related to his work in South Africa Hewett pointed out that the introduction of something as simple as an irrigation network can have a wide range of benefits to a community in a developing area, first enabling people to move away from subsistence farming into producing surplus to sell and then bringing infrastructure such as roads connecting the community in a variety of ways, providing access to goods, education and much more. Finally he used the example of flooding to illustrate the level of development of a country is the most factor in deciding how people are affected by climate change and for that I would focus on flooding and the contrast between a developed and developing country. Let’s take Holland and Bangladesh. Much of Holland is reclaimed land lying below sea level yet when there is high rainfall we don’t hear about disastrous floods and loss of life – the reason is simple – their dykes and their modern homes and infrastructure are affected remarkably little by a storm – this is the wonder of development. Bangladesh by contrast suffers from severe loss of life due to flooding on an unacceptably regular basis – this clearly needn’t be the case. So what should our approach be to climate change? To intervene in the landscape to ensure that it doesn’t adversely affect us – whatever the uncertainties may be, & I think they are high, we can plan & build and make sure that people can live their lives without being afraid of the next storm – this is the only answer and is our responsibility to both present and future generations. Let’s be bold, believe in ourselves and make the future better than the present.

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