Disappearing down the drain

Gayle looks into the forthcoming shortages of some of society's most important resources - not least water.

Just as the spring is starting to burst upon us (stay with me here - I know it's still as chilly as a penguin's chuff but officially it's springlike) with the promise of green sprouting things and cute little chicks and lambs to cheer us up, we are threatened with dramatic shortages in some of our most vital life support systems.

Gas prices are rocketing - faster than in the rest of Europe - and supplies are dwindling fast. Water reserves are also low, with some water companies already committed to rationing during the summer months.

It hardly seems possible that here, in the wealthy west, we are only a couple of tottering steps away from having to chop up the furniture and burn it in the fireplace to keep warm, forcing the smaller children to operate a treadmill for electricity and filtering our own urine to provide drinking water!

We may have to give up watering the garden every day. (Every day? I read that in a magazine somewhere and, frankly, the idea of doing any such thing amazed me. I bought a garden hose when I first moved here twenty odd years ago and I have probably used it about half a dozen times - excluding filling the paddling pool when the kids were little.)

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Luckily, we will not be hit by the water rationing set to be imposed on the south east of England. East Anglia may be dry, but it is not quite so heavily populated as the Home Counties (though John Prescott is working on that) so we may be able to get through the year without a hosepipe ban.

But Anglian Water, like other authorities, is encouraging customers to get a water meter. This is meant to save water, but I don't really understand how. Does it mean that, instead of deciding to swill gallons down the drain just for the pleasure of hearing the taps running, customers will only use water when they need it? Don't we do that anyway?

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And no customer will be wasting water as fast as the water companies themselves do when they leave massive leaks unattended. In Bury St Edmunds, there have been two major incidents since Christmas in one spot, where a road was flooded with water up to six inches deep. Anglian Water's spokesperson commented that once there has been a leak, you are very likely to have another one in the same place. Only if you haven't fixed it properly the first time, I would have thought.

In the Norfolk town of Aylsham, water was allowed to flow away at an estimated gallon a minute for three months from a leak which Anglian Water were aware of. 8,000 baths or 18,000 showers went down the drain, which rather puts things in perspective when the companies are asking us not to let the tap run while we brush our teeth.

The only consolation in the prospect of severe water shortages is that we may have to go back to the habits of earlier times, when clean drinking water was in short supply, and start drinking more beer instead . . .

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