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Within a decade, London could be facing a water shortage

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s looming water shortage.

It is said that there are five basic pre-conditions for human survival: oxygen, food, shelter, sleep and water.

Some of us might add some additional items to that list, popular entries including coffee and wine, neither of which are in danger of imminent shortage (don’t panic just yet). But as difficult as it is to imagine existence without those additional amenities, the previous five are the very basics we need in order to continue to function.

Over the next two decades, though, supply of one of those basic functions, water, is going to come under increasing strain. And most Londoners are blissfully unaware of the challenges this will present.

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Water could be described as the most precious commodity of all, but it is also the most misunderstood. And London faces a very real challenge in meeting future demand. We will have to make some tough decisions if we are to guarantee security of supply in the years to come.

“But what about all that rain we get?” I hear you cry. “Didn’t the Romans very sensibly plough their furrows adjacent to the UK’s second longest river?”

Actually, London really doesn’t get that much rain. It’s an easy argument for me to make as I type away on one of the warmest days of the year, but the metrological facts are very clear. Average annual rainfall in London is 557.4mm. Compare that to Paris (2089.1mm), New York (1239.8mm) or Sydney (1242.7mm) – or even supposedly arid Mexico City (709mm) – and you soon realise that “rainy London” is something of an urban myth. As for the river, 80 per cent of the water provided to London and Home Counties is already currently drawn from rivers. We’re pushing close to capacity.


But the biggest challenge is London’s booming population. Predicted to hit 11m by 2050, it poses a huge test for the city’s policymakers. Unfortunately we Londoners don’t help matters either, having some of the highest average consumption rates in the country. The long term consequences are fairly dire: if we carry on as we are, experts anticipate supply problems by 2025, with very serious shortages by 2040.

The impact for both domestic and commercial water customers would be considerable. California’s drought is predicted to have cost the state $2.7bn last year, with a wide range of economic sectors under strain.

London itself is no stranger to drought: those old enough to remember the 1976 drought will know how severe the situation can become. In the spring of 2012, London had experienced two dry winters and was under a hosepipe ban. As that year’s Olympic Games drew ever nearer, officials begun to wonder if even more restrictive measures might be needed – until exceptionally heavy rainfall replenished supplies in the late spring.

All this demonstrates the importance of planning for London’s water future. With the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor, and Thames Water starting work on a new Water Management Plan by 2019, it’s crucial London uses this momentum to come together and find solutions to the challenges ahead. Possible solutions could include pumping water across the country from the Severn Estuary; the construction of a new reservoir in Oxfordshire to increase storage capacity; and increased demand management, through the roll out of smart metering. The least popular measure? Using reclaimed water from treated sewage.

If London is to be a vibrant, economically successful and sustainable city of 11m by the middle of this century, then it’s time policymakers turned their attention to water – even while the rest of us ponder the necessity of coffee or wine to human survival.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

Still thirsty? Check out this podcast we did on cities and water shortages.
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