Bottled water costs more than petrol and yet each of us flushes around 50 litres of drinking water down the loo every day. 50 litres is a tank of petrol. The water in our lavatory cisterns is as clean as that in the heavily marketed and transported bottles that line our supermarket shelves, but we are as careless of tap water as fresh air. How can we be so schizophrenic? On one level we venerate water with Evian and sacred wells; on another we treat it as a national nuisance that falls unbidden from the sky, spoiling our shoes and holidays.
The link between flood and drought is seldom made. If the British are ever at a loss for words, we can always fall back on a reassuring lament about too much or too little water. And yet, as weather patterns become more erratic; as we pave over more and more fields and front gardens; and as we desire more powerful showers and greener lawns, we need to understand that connection between drought and flood. The freshwater cycle has a natural pace. Freshwater falls as rain or snow, is absorbed into the ground and flows down through rivers to the sea to evaporate and return again as rain. It irrigates our lives on its way. 1% of the earth’s water is usable for drinking and it steadily recycles at its own rate. As we accelerate that rate, the water has less chance to sink into the ground; rushes over the land taking soil, nitrates and pollutants with it; floods into riverside towns; overflows sewers; and then is sped out to sea, leaving contamination, destruction and… no water. We don’t particularly need more water; we just need to slow it down and treat it with a little more respect.
So where can we make a start in Britain? Rural land management would be a good place. Farming practices since the war have been encouraged to maximize food production. Among other things this has been achieved by bringing marginal land into use, often draining wetlands, clearing wooded slopes, straightening rivers and embanking flood meadows. With the reconfiguration of the Common Agricultural Policy, there is the opportunity to repair a more patient pattern of land management. Rainwater can be recaptured in upland woodlands and wetlands, gradually released into meandering rivers and stored at times of peak rainfall in flood meadows and marshes. Runoff, erosion and diffuse pollution can be reduced by softer, slower and more traditional ways of using the land. Even surfacing roads and motorways with porous asphalt could make a big difference to polluted run off, as well as traffic noise. At the moment the water companies spend up to £313 million a year dealing with nitrates, pesticides and other contaminants – 10% of the costs of supplying drinking water to the public in England and Wales. The clean-up uses both chemicals and energy-intensive ultra-violet treatment, contributing to the water industry being the most power hungry of utilities and emitting 2.6% of UK carbon emissions every year. These resources could be allocated more efficiently and more wisely by tackling the pollution at source and indeed some water companies have bought critical upland sites within their catchments to allow the water to soak naturally and cleanly through wetlands and forests to the rivers. This is connected thinking at its best. The scope of the new farming Single Payment System and the European Water Framework Directive could bring farming and water conservation into timely harmony. It will rely on an agile and imaginative DEFRA to pay farmers to produce food in a way that works for water, wildlife and landscape.
The opportunity and the urgency are here in a way that has not been evident for half a century and could revolutionize the way we think about our rural land. As the aquifers of Mediterranean countries deplete to crisis levels, importing Italian salads and Spanish strawberries to the UK becomes less viable. Agriculture in northern Europe should be set for a serious revival. Growing food sustainably in mild rainfed climates is a good idea. Farmers and water companies have said that they would welcome the shift and it would return agriculture to something purposeful, positive and relevant. The general drift over the last ten years towards treating countryside as a kind of suburban park, with farmers as subsidized park keepers, is one that neither taxpayers nor the environment can afford.
Then there are the towns and cities where 90% of us live. This is often where the crisis is felt; where hosepipe bans hit first and where floods are most devastating. According to the Government’s Chief Scientist, the number of people at high risk of flooding is expected to more than double to nearly 3.5 million by 2080. Housing pressure in south-east England means that new estates continue to be built in areas that are intrinsically short of water and prone to flooding. In the last year 21 major developments have been built on floodplains despite explicit appeals from the Environment Agency, and in direct contravention of national policy. Apart from waking up the planning system to make sure that this kind of madness does not continue, what else can be done? Is there anything that we can do as individuals that has any effect? Actually there is rather a lot. The Germans manage to lead perfectly comfortable lives while consuming a third less water than the English. Dual flush loos, water butts, drip irrigation rather than sprinklers, and parking areas made of permeable gravel rather than impermeable tarmac, are some of the small changes that can make a big difference. The revival of public parks and private gardens as places that help to absorb and store water could have a direct effect that reduces the need for massive flood and supply engineering schemes and the energy to keep them running.
The next biggest consumer of water, after houses, is the energy industry. Power station cooling accounts for 39% of national water consumption. One of the ironies of a drought order is that power stations like Didcot could be shut down as the flows in the Thames become so low that water cannot be drawn off to cool the installation. Although the structural upheavals would be enormous, one of the great attractions of decentralizing energy generation is the scope for combining power infrastructure with recycling heat, water and sewage at a local level. A number of water companies have already built sewage works where they siphon off the methane for energy and sell the dried ‘waste’ as fertilizer. The more that waste is eliminated as a concept and imaginative lateral thought is applied to how we use and reuse all our resources in combination, the better. Reducing the distances travelled by both water and energy makes as much sense as reducing the distances travelled by food.
Worldwide, water shortage and flooding are in the vanguard of climate change. Our urban and rural lives have been too careless of the resource, relying on easy water from ancient aquifers – stored under the ground over thousands of years – rather than renewable water from the freshwater cycle. In the United Kingdom of all places, it must be possible to find a sensible way of managing water. Rather than alternating between drought and flood, we need to press for political courage to regain balance, using water carefully and slowing down its journey from sky to sea.Kim Wilkie
xi.2006Kim Wilkie is a landscape architect who wrote the Thames Landscape Strategy and is working with Zac Goldsmith and John Gummer on the Quality of Life Challenge for David Cameron.
Article appeared in Resurgence. March 2007
LET IT RAIN, LET IT RAIN
‘Down here in the South East we spend six months of the year talking about building the river banks up and dredging the rivers to get the water away quicker to stop the flooding, and the other six months wondering where all the water has gone’. (Kent farmer)
Perhaps we start at the wrong point with flooding, treating the water as a dangerous hazard to be blocked out or speeded through, rather than as a precious resource to be harvested. Drought and flood are part of the same cycle – a destabilized one. Freshwater falls as rain or snow, is absorbed into the ground and flows down through rivers to the sea to evaporate and return again as rain. It irrigates our lives on its way. Just 1% of the earth’s water is usable for drinking and it steadily recycles at its own rate. As we accelerate that rate, water has less chance to sink into the ground; rushes over the land taking soil, nitrates and pollutants with it; floods into riverside towns; overflows sewers; and then is sped out to sea, leaving contamination, destruction and… no water.
Why is the freshwater cycle becoming increasingly rushed and unstable? Climate change is one reason. Weather patterns are turning more volatile, dumping large amounts of rain in short, sharp bursts between long, hot periods of drought and evaporation. As ice caps melt, sea levels and tidal surges are rising. Burgeoning domestic demand is another. More single households, power showers and greener lawns put a strain on rivers and aquifers. Higher car ownership and parking pressures have encouraged us to pave over substantial areas of our towns and suburbs. Rain that used to sink into front gardens and playing fields now bounces off impermeable surfaces to swell the deluge in storm drains. Combined sewers that cannot cope with the sudden downpours then overflow into rivers. While out in the countryside, decades of subsidized land drainage and deep ploughing shed polluted water and topsoil off farmland into faster straightened rivers and past bunded flood plains to bottle-necks in low-lying built developments. On a global and national scale, damage from flooding is greater than from any other natural disaster. Around 1.8 million households, 140,000 commercial properties and 1.4 million hectares of agricultural land in England are at risk.
But it is not all doom and gloom. There are ways of regaining balance, using water carefully and slowing down its journey from the sky to the sea. The Environment Agency’s Floodplan (Making Space for Water) and river restoration initiatives are pioneering work on flood management rather than flood prevention. The natural environment relies on the steady flow of water through, rivers, lakes, marshes and aquifers. Wildlife, plants and even the micro-organisms in the soil are dependent on the water cycle that the extremes of drought and flood can destroy. The health of the countryside and much of our enjoyment and recreation are based on a balanced water regime. There is great scope to restore river corridors and floodplains, capture flood peaks in traditional flood meadows and store water in farm ponds, marshes and wetlands. If we manage to connect issues across government, there is a rare new opportunity to take full advantage of the Water Framework Directive and reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy to tackle land management, water flows and diffuse pollution.
Possible new initiatives in the built environment could make a similar impact. The UK is about to embark on a major programme of new house building. Considerations of water shortage and flooding need to be critical factors in decisions about where and how the housing is built. Houses could be clustered around productive open space creating new opportunities for water management and recycling and leading the way for retrofitting older parts of our cities. Water efficient design, such as dual flush lavatories and low flow taps and showerheads, can reduce household water use by up to 50%. German households use a third less water than we consume in the UK. Changing building standards and layouts could make a dramatic difference to the way that water is used and recycled. There are connections to be made between harvesting water, managing waste, growing food and generating energy on a small local scale.
So where does the Thames Gateway fit in all this? The first question should probably be why there? Why build 160,000 new houses in the flood mouth of one of the most flood vulnerable capitals in the world? A capital that is ironically also situated in the most drought-stricken corner of the country and chronically short of drinking water. The Association of British Insurers and Terry Farrell have been two of the few voices challenging the sanity of the idea. Terry argues that houses for London key workers should be built within the capital’s current envelope, accessible through the existing transport network. There is little sense in creating a remote slum of affordable houses in a place where no one would choose to live. The estuary should be understood as landscape in its own right: a place for water, wildlife, farming and recreation. It is a huge area, covering three counties and many different landscape types. The estuary itself has a vast, windswept, horizontal scale that dwarfs buildings and people. The Medway towns can continue to develop as separate communities, but the land itself needs to be respected for its own crucial contribution to the capital’s safety and sanity. It is not a vacant lot waiting for development.
Can houses and flooding coexist? Ideally not; the flood plains should be left open to absorb the increasing number of violent downpours and tidal surges. But there could be a landscape of houses and roads on stilts; salt marshes full of birds; flood meadows grazed by cattle; and riverside arable farmland that floods in winter. There could be a waterland where the elemental landscape sets the priorities and inspires fresh architecture. New building forms could evolve that tolerate or even welcome water. There are exciting possibilities for tapping the thermal qualities of water for heat pumps; for using water for transport; for capturing rain on a community scale; and for creating beautiful new buildings on water. The possibilities rely on careful and thoughtful design that starts with the environmental context, rather than a rushed economic and political desperation to find cheap new housing.
Worldwide, water shortage and flooding are in the vanguard of climate change. Our urban and rural lives have been too careless of the resource, relying on easy water from ancient aquifers – stored under the ground over thousands of years – rather than renewable water from the freshwater cycle. In the United Kingdom of all places, it must be possible to find a sensible way of managing water. Rather than alternating between drought and flood, we need to press for political courage to regain balance, using water carefully and slowing down its journey from sky to sea.
Kim Wilkie 12.ii.07
Ulysses, James Joyce
‘What did Bloom do at the range?
He removed the saucepan to the left hob, rose and carried the iron kettle to the sink in order to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow.
Did it flow?
Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 1⁄2 million gallons the water had fallen below the sill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks committee had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.
What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier, returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independences of its units: the variability of states of sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, acrtic and antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the rgion below the subequatorial tropic Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed: its capacity to dissolve and hold in solution all soluble substances including millions of tons of the most precious metals: its slow erosions of peninsulas and islands, its persistent formation of homothetic islands, peninsulas and downwardtending promontories: its alluvial deposits: its weight and volume and density: its imperturbability in lagoons and highland tarns: its gradation of colours in the torrid and temperate and frigid zones: its vehicular ramifications in continental lake contained streams and confluent oceanflowing rivers with their tributaries and transoceanic currents, gulfstream, north and southe equatorial courses: its violence in seaquakes, waterspouts, Artesian wells, eruptions, torrents, eddies, freshets, spates, groundswells, watersheds, waterpartings, geysers, cataracts, whirlpools, maelstroms, inundations, deluges, cloudbursts: its vast circumterrestrial ahorizontal curve: its secrecy in springs and latent humidity, revealed by rhabdomantic or hygrometric instruments and exemplified by the well by the hole in the wall at Ashtown gate, saturation of ai, distillation of dew: the simplicity of its compositio, towo constituent parts of hydrogen with one constituent part of oxygen: its healing virtues: its buoyancy in the waters of the Dead Sea: its persevering penetrativeness in runnels, gullies, inadequate dams, leaks on shipboard: its properties for cleansing, quenching thirst and fire, nourishing vegetation: its infallibility as paradigm and paragon: its metamorphoses as vapour, mist cloud, rain, sleet, snow, hail: its strength in rigid hydrants: its variety of forms in loughs and bays and gulfs and bights and guts and lagoons and atolls and archipelagos and sounds and fjords and minches and tidal estuaries and arms of sea: its solidity in glaciers, icebergs, icefloes: its docility in working hydraulic millwheels, turbines, dynamos, electric power stations, bleachworks, tanneries, scutchmills: its utility in canals, rivers, if navigable, floating and graving docks: its potentiality derivable from harnessed tides or watercourses falling from level to level: its submarine fauna and flora (anacoustic, photophobe), numerically if not literally, the inhabitants of the globe: its ubiquity as constructing 90% of the human body: the noxiousness of its effluvia in lacustrine marshes, pestilential fens, faded flowerwater, stagnant pools in the waning moon.
What reason did Stephen give for declining Bloom’s offer?
That he was a hydrophobe, hating partial contact by immersion or total by submersion in cold water, (his last bath having taken place in the month of October of the preceding year), disliking the aqueous substances of glass and crystal, distrusting aquacities of thought and language.’