As I write this, it is raining in a slight but persistent drizzle outside my Pimlico flat, central London. It has been a mixed bag on the weather front recently: some spells of great warm weather but a fair amount of rain. The cricket match at Lords was briefly interrupted by it. One can bet that the Wimbledon tennis tournament later in the summer will undergo the familiar ritual of thrilling matches being interrupted by rain (although I hear there are plans afoot to put a giant cover over the Centre Court stadium in due course).
Despite all this, we are told that Britain faces an unprecedented drought. All manner of water restrictions are threatened, although thankfully, given the less-than-wonderful personal habits of Londoners (any Tube user will know what I mean) it is still allowed for us to take a morning shower. In short, shortages. This appears insane in a country famed or infamous for its damp summers. It is an island in which few places are more than 100 miles from the sea. In a wider context, most of the Earth’s surface is covered in the stuff. What’s the problem?
The ‘shortages’ we have now have a number of causes, from what I can glean. There has been a substantial population rise in the southeast of England. Greater affluence means more dishwashers, bigger washing machines. Increasingly, many people will often have more than one bathroom in a house. Other, wetter, parts of the UK like the famously wet area to the west of the Pennines have not seen the same sort of population growth. There is plenty of water in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There ought, however, to be no problem if markets were given the chance to work their unplanned magic. If water is scarce, then that means supply is not responding to demand as might be shown through prices in a market. Hence we need water metering, greater freedoms for water firms to dig new reservoirs, repair and lay down new pipes, build desalination plants (why the hell not?)… and the like. Why should water be free at the point of consumption if it costs time and effort to collect, clean and transport it? What the water industry needs is a shower of entrepreneurial flair. Water needs a Steve Jobs or a Brunel, not bossy exhortations about not watering the lawn.
I can see the objections coming: water is a ‘natural monopoly’ and has to be regulated. How true is that? It may be true that in practice, it is unlikely that you will get more than one firm operating a reservoir and pipe system in one neighbourhood, but that does not mean, in my view, that you could not have more flexibility than now exists to let water firms set prices and hence encourage new supplies, shape patterns of demand, and so forth. For example, if an area of the UK has a water firm that charges a fortune for water, that will affect house prices, and therefore may encourage would-be homeowners to go elsewhere to where water is cheaper, and so on. Imperfect though this may sound, it strikes me that the price of water supply should be an economic factor that determines behaviour as much as say, the cost to a person in commuting to the City.
There may be some other reasons for some regulatory oversight, such as security. Due to fears about terrorism, we may want any water firm to have strict controls to ensure some nutter does not try to poison the populace, although this could just as likely happen with a state-run water company as a private one. Given water’s vital importance to human life, a state may feel that it must ensure that a bare minimum supply is guaranteed and may want to create a sort of strategic reserve of reservoirs and suchlike, rather like the US oil reserve.
There has not been nearly enough public debate about this most basic element of life. It is about time there was. In the meantime, the world watches Britain’s annual ritual: praying for a lot of rain.