As concerns mount about continuing drought in the South East and rivers running low in the Lake District, Population Matters released a report showing the grave implications of UK population growth for our future water supplies.
The report1 ‘More People, Less Water‘ is an MSc dissertation commissioned by Population Matters from LSE graduate student Rusha Shukla last summer, for which she received a Merit. “This is a student report, not peer-reviewed,” said Population Matters chair Roger Martin, “but it makes a strong prima facie case for stabilizing our numbers as soon as possible.”
The report shows that the UK’s future water supply problems will be far harder to solve if our population is allowed to grow to the upper variant projected by the UN2 for 2050 – 82 million, or 20 million more than now – than if we stabilise it at the lower variant – 64 million, or two million more. Depending on assumptions about variables, like how much we reduce water consumption per person and the need for more irrigation in hotter, drier summers, the higher number of people would need between 1.5 and 4.9 million more tonnes (cubic metres) per day than the lower; and the cost of the new reservoirs to provide it would be between £5.9 and £22.6 billion extra on our water bills.
Mr Martin continued: “These are worrying figures, even without taking account of the additional costs of new pipelines, sewage treatment and more long-distance pumping, or the huge energy implications of all this, let alone the cost of protecting all the additional houses and infrastructure from the increased flood risk, which DEFRA’s Climate Change Risk Assessment3 (CCRA just released) sees as the biggest potential cost.”
“As a member of Environment Agency flood defence and other committees for over 20 years, it has long been clear to me that ever more housing around towns, which are mostly on the rich silts in flood plains – their reason for being there in the first place – will not only concrete over more good arable land which we need to feed us, but also add to the cost of flood risk management; while the alternative – to build the new houses outside the towns above the flood plain – would overturn all the accepted standards of planning law.”
“It’s always been obvious,” he added, “that, as our Patron David Attenborough often says, all our environmental problems become harder – and ultimately impossible – to solve with ever more people. Now we have some numbers showing how much harder. I have long campaigned for water demand-management through universal ‘fair metering’ (variable tariff) to enable real demand management of this finite resource, but there are limits to what the pubic will accept. It’s the same with all natural resources – the more we are, the less there is for each. Every extra person puts more pressure on nature, and reduces everyone else’s share. Ever more people need ever more houses, roads, railways (think HS2), power stations, and quarries to build them; and that means ever less farmland, soil, hence food security, tranquility and open spaces. Climate change and peak oil are making life tougher anyway, even with stable numbers; and basic food security, if it’s achievable at all for 82 million people on our small island, will require more irrigation. Wildlife habitats shrink too under people-pressure – this report is bad news for otters, trout, herons and wetlands, despite all the rearguard actions being fought by the conservationists.”
“I cannot understand why the environmental bodies stay silent on this,” he went on. “They all know David Attenborough is right – why are they so scared to say so? Our YouGov poll4 shows that 80% of the public share our view that the UK is over-crowded, and want a smaller population. England is now the most densely settled country in Europe, and yet we keep growing fast – at roughly one more Leeds per year (500,000).”
“We badly need the Government to give a lead, and state the obvious,” he concluded, “that it is in the national interest to stabilize our population as soon as possible – naturally by non-coercive means. If we could stop running to stand still, like a hamster in a wheel. we could go somewhere better.”
1. Shukla, Rusha – More People, Less Water – LSE Masters Dissertation, October 2011 http://populationmatters.org/documents/water_report_summary.pdf
2. UN population projections –
3. DEFRA – UK Climate Change Risk Assessment (CCRA) – 25 January 2012 http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climate/government/risk-assessment/
4. YouGov survey of 3538 adults, fieldwork undertaken 10-12 May 2011 http://populationmatters.org/2011/news/people-uk-population-high