January 3, 2013, by Rosamund Aubrey

Water, water everywhere, but will there be water to drink?

We know the Earth as the blue planet, that beautiful image from space, where we see the majority of our world is water, but we forget that water, our staff of life, is a precious resource.  Lord Deben, who gave the second annual Papplewick Pumping Station lecture here at the University last November, is Chair of the Committee on Climate Change and as John Selwyn Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment 1993-97, has a distinguished environmental record.  He gave an interesting, amusing and challenging lecture with the title, A Victorian Vision, Today’s Reality.  The Victorians, he said, got things done and they had imagination, ‘the rarest of all virtues,’ they were able to imagine great things and achieved them.  One achievement was bringing safe, clean drinking water to everyone; it was democratisation, making water available to all.  But the Victorians also controlled and Papplewick Pumping Station combined imagination and control, they named and made things comprehensible, but with that came control including control of natural resources.

Lord Deben challenged our current thinking about water.  Is it wrong, he asked, to suggest there may be better ways to make water available to all in a way very different to those imaginative Victorians?  And would they provide water in the same way now when we know there is a world shortage of water.  He thought not.  Only 6% of water is used for human consumption, so why do we supply the other 94% to drinking water quality?  We think of water as free, but it is a valuable resource, expensive to clean and distribute.  Why do we consider different models are unacceptable, surely making clean, safe water available is a priority without necessarily building a developed world distribution network for example.

Businesses are doing the imaginative thinking on water today; for businesses water is not free and he gave Coca Cola as an example.  Executives overlaid a map of where Coke is produced with a map of where there is a shortage of water – and they matched.  It used to take 12 litres of water to make a litre of Coke, now it takes one and a half litres.  Fifteen years ago a discussion on water was not acceptable because to suggest that Coke is mainly water, meant it was not worth very much.  Now the value of water is recognised, both to business efficiency and what water conservation means to communities, takes precedence.

Lord Deben strayed from the practical to consider water and religion.  Water he suggested was at the heart of all major religions, either as iconography and or as ritual, from Christian baptism to bathing in the Ganges.  And bathing led him to the contentious issue of baths; he hates showers, they’re either too hot or too cold, everyone is different …. Now you can read in a bath, you can top it up with hot water, you can share it, and it doesn’t use four times as much water as a shower.  We have to challenge our own thinking about our use of resources, why do we flush out toilets or water gardens with drinking water.

It was easy to see why he was described as the “best Environment Secretary we’ve ever had” by Friends of the Earth which welcomed his appointment as Chair of the Committee on Climate Change:  Lord Deben saw no reason why those who use a lot of water, for swimming pool for example, should not pay a higher rate for their water use.  He emphasised again and again the democratic principle of drinking water for all at an affordable price and challenged us to be imaginative.

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