~ Posted by Robert Butler, March 30th 2012
This week, to get in some practice for a sponsored walk, I've walked the five miles into work, which takes in four of London's parks. Each day in the parks there are tourists photographing the mass of daffodils, the cherry blossom and the magnolia. Halfway through the walk, there's a big poster by a bus stop that has a background of parched brown earth. In large white type, it announces: "WE ARE IN DROUGHT".
The smaller type says there have been two years of exceptionally low rainfall. It goes on to ask Londoners to use less water. The website for Thames Water, the company responsible for the poster campaign, explains that since records began in 1884, there have been only two other periods—1892-3 and 1920-1—that have seen less rainfall. In some places the groundwater at the moment is "close to the lowest levels ever recorded". From next week on, Londoners will be banned from using hosepipes or maintaining a swimming pool, paddling pool or ornamental fountain.
Sure, there's a serious shortage of water. But I can't help associating drought with something more Biblical: droughts cause famine, migration and change the destiny of a people. Elijah survives a drought in the first Book of Kings because God directs him to a secluded brook, where ravens feed him morsels of meat. The idea that a drought involves temporarily switching off your ornamental fountain doesn't quite hack it.
I'd be fine with an informative poster that said: "Water levels at historic low", or even simple ones saying: "Warning: Water Shortage" or "Please Save Water". But the current poster feels inept. At the moment, the 14m people served by Thames Water can turn on their taps whenever they like and drink as much water as they want. That's something that's not available to a billion other people in the world. And while that's still true, Londoners should hesitate to say they're living through a drought. There's still enough water for spring to have sprung.
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life