~ Posted by Robert Butler, May 22nd 2012
There's been a shortage of water in Britain for some time and earlier this year the water companies ran a poster campaign: "WE ARE IN DROUGHT". We blogged about this saying "This is not a drought" and "A drain is not a drought". Seven weeks on, that's been confirmed. The Daily Telegraph headlines a story: "This is not a drought." The sub-heading runs: "Environment chiefs consider redefining 'really blunt word' drought."
Our argument was not with the figures, but the framing. A tremendous amount of water is lost through leaks (3.3 billion litres a day). Plenty of water gets used in inessential ways: having to curtail the use of the ornamental fountain in the garden does not amount to a drought. Nor does it feel remotely appropriate to apply the same term to describe what we're experiencing in south-east England and what others are experiencing in the Sahel region of West Africa.
Still, the posters went up on the buses and, soon after, it rained and rained and rained. Now there were flood warnings as well as drought warnings. Eventually the water chiefs recognised there was only so much cognitive dissonance the public could handle. The Telegraph reports that the Environment Agency is going to tailor its messages to distinguish between types of "deficits in rainfall" such as long-term dry spells, groundwater shortage and an economic drought (when there's not enough water to meet the public's needs).
Well, that's a start, but this isn't really about rain. It's about the way we consume water and the way we waste it. As Hugo Rifkind wrote in the Spectator last month, "We don’t mean 'drought'. What we mean is 'pisspoor management of the water supply'."
Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life