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United Kingdom water crisis

Notorious for being a particularly rainy nation, the UK has no need to worry about its water supply. But is that actually the case?

BY JON HEGGIE

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

SUBMERGED BRIDGE EXPOSED BY DROUGHT, LLWYNON RESERVOIR, WALES

We think of Wales as rainy, but our variable climate means that nowhere in the UK is immune from drought. In 2018, water levels in the Llwynon Reservoir dropped low enough to reveal a normally submerged bridge built before the area was flooded.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

THE RIVER SKIRFARE RUNS DRY, YORKSHIRE DALES

The UK is rainiest in the west and the north, thanks to a prevailing southwesterly wind that blows moist air from the sea onto the uplands, where it cools and falls as rain. The South East is relatively dry in comparison, although even Yorkshire can experience drought.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

WELSH WATER DESTINED FOR BIRMINGHAM

Claerwen Dam in the Elan Valley, Wales, captures water that will be transferred through a 63-mile-long aqueduct to supply the city of Birmingham. As urban growth continues and droughts occur more frequently, though, urban water supplies could be in trouble.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

THE THAMES FLOWING THROUGH LONDON

Reservoirs that collect water from the River Thames supply much of London’s water, but the South East is classed as ‘seriously water stressed’. Climate change and a growing population are both putting increasing pressure on the capital’s water supply.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

SHARING OUR RIVERS

Otters are an important indicator of a river’s health. The UK otter population collapsed in the 1950s due to pesticide pollution, but recent decades have seen their numbers increase thanks to healthier rivers. However, otters may face a new threat: as droughts caused by climate change become more frequent, otters may have to seek out new waterways and food sources.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

MAKING EVERY DROP MATTER

By 2040 summers will be hotter and drier, and as our population continues to grow, we need to start using less water now. Authorities are raising awareness of the many simple things we can do to conserve water at home; for instance, fixing a dripping tap can save as much as a litre of water a day.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

WATER FROM A LEAKY MAINS PIPE IN LONDON

Around 23 percent of the public water supply is lost to leaks every year, but with over 200,000 miles of pipes, most of them underground, finding and fixing leaks is impossibly difficult. Even replacing every pipe in the entire network would only cut leaks by half.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

A GREEN AND PLEASANT LAND?

With more frequent, prolonged, and severe droughts projected in the coming years, water shortages will cause serious problems for agriculture. Currently, UK farmers rely more on rainfall than irrigation with public water, but warmer and drier summers could see the need for irrigation increase.

PHOTOGRAPH BY SHUTTERSTOCK

PLANTS GROW IN A VERTICAL FARM, BRISTOL

Indoor vertical farming takes advantage of a completely controlled environment to grow intensely flavoured ‘micro greens.’ Using 60 to 90 percent less water than traditional methods, in a harsher and less predictable UK climate this could be the new face of farming.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

SAVING WATER AT HOME

The Environment Agency recommends we cut our water use at home by roughly a third. One step we can take to save up to 24 litres of water is to stop pre-rinsing dishes before loading them into the dishwasher. Such simple water-saving actions will be increasingly important as the UK climate becomes hotter and drier. Learn more.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CHARLIE HAMILTON JAMES

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