The Ecologist July 1971: Britain’s water shortage

Ecologist Magazine July 1971
Forty years ago this month F.N. Steele wrote about Britain’s water shortage and about the importance of addressing its causes immediately

In July 1971, F.N. Steele wrote an article about Britain’s water shortage. Water supplies, Steele writes, have been unable to keep pace with the increasing demands of industrialising nations and their growing populations; combined with the effects of pollution and wastage, Steele forecasts that if Britain does not make immediate lifestyle and institutional changes, Britain’s water shortage will become an irreversible crisis.

On the verge of severe water rationing measures after the hottest April in 350 years this year, water shortage is still a significant problem. Southern Britain is currently experiencing “drought conditions” after receiving less than ten per cent the normal levels of precipitation. England and Wales received their lowest March and April rainfall since 1938 and their land is the driest it has been in 50 years, prompting raging forest fires in Berkshire, Lancashire, and the Scottish Highlands.

In 1971, Steele wrote that the average Londoner needed 33 gallons of water a day for domestic use, with some Americans using 55 gallons a day. According to the Environment Agency, the average Londoner used 35 gallons of water a day in 2009, and the average American used 121 gallons of water a day in 2006, according to the UN Development Program. UK NGO Waterwise say Southeast England has less available water per person than Sudan and Syria.

Read the original essay here

Besides the effects of a severe water shortage on the average Briton, Steele is also concerned about the external effects of a shortage, including it’s importance to wildlife and manufacturing commodities like steel, cement, and paper. Such external effects persist 40 years on, with drought conditions driving up food prices, but the Environment Agency is already limiting the amount of water farmers can use for irrigation, making hosepipe bans less likely, and is considering moving rare fish and wildlife if streams dry out.

Pollution, which renders volumes of water unusable both domestically and industrially, is still a major contributor to the water shortage, and while Britain’s water quality has vastly improved in recent years – according to the Environment Agency the water quality has been improving since 1990 – activists continue to argue the UK is meeting bare minimum standards and lags behind other EU countries.

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