The Great Debate
Humanity’s Big Challenge: Water Wars
4pm, Sunday 23rd October 2016
Battle of Ideas
Barbican Centre, London
Water, so vital for human life, covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. Yet despite huge
progress in technology and modern development, water scarcity is one of the great challenges
facing humanity today. Indeed, water scarcity has become an increasingly important debate -
globally - in recent years, with water crises in Flint, Michigan and in California becoming
just two of the most striking examples of how developed Western nations can struggle to
maintain plentiful water supply. While California’s drought-hit residents are blamed for their
water-guzzling swimming pools and golf courses, water poverty has begun to be a real concern.
In Ireland, disputes about privatisation of the state water company and the introduction of
charges led to mass refusal to pay water bills, civil disobedience and even riots, which at
times threatened to topple the government. Meanwhile, whilst floods across northern England
often dominate headlines, there is growing anxiety over the future of water supply in the UK,
particularly in the south-east of England. Despite the increasing intensity of heavy rainfall
over recent years, the Environment Agency has classed the south-east region as under
‘serious water stress’, which is compounded by population increases and changes to weather patterns.
Why is such a fundamental utility so problematic? Some commentators suggest, in the developed world,
these problems are fundamentally infrastructural, driven by inefficiencies in water management and
political complacency, and argue that innovative solutions are preferable to rationing measures.
Following a prolonged period of low rainfall in the UK up to 2012, water companies were preparing
themselves for water-saving and management measures beyond ‘hosepipe bans’ and there are concerns
that the recent wet period has only delayed confronting underlying problems rather than being seen
purely as a result of weather patterns. In contrast, a dry country like Israel, for example, has
overcome a profound crisis through substantial investment in desalination plants and conservation
And what of solutions? In England and Wales, up to 20 per cent of water is still lost in the
damaged and decrepit underground water supply pipes; environmentalists argue for
Sustainable Urban Drainage – absorbing water in green roofs, filling water butts for re-use,
and attenuation systems to alleviate urban surface water flooding. This year, even China’s president,
Xi Jinping, advocated that China’s cities should be water-absorbent Sponge Cities.
But sometimes obvious engineering solutions face political opposition: for example, it is argued by
some that the construction of an Abingdon Reservoir would solve most of London’s water problems,
but this has been held up by for a decade by opposition from local people. Or perhaps we need to pay more?
Once a radical proposal, earlier this year, analysts from Deloitte argued that increasing the price of
water – also done in Israel – would incentivise much-needed investment in water systems and alleviate
the resulting costs on energy and food production of water scarcity.
How has water provision become a problem for even advanced globalised societies? Has a lack of
investment and political will created a false problem, or will counter-crisis measures such as
rationing become the norm? What happened to sea-water desalination plants? Does a focus on drought
and rainfall distract us from a discussion about water as largely a man-made resource like any other,
with associated costs? What innovations would help avert a coming crisis and who should pay for them?
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Fiona Harvey, environment correspondent, Guardian
Dr Caspar Hewett, Lecturer in civil engineering at Newcastle University, and Director of
The Great Debate
Cate Lamb, global director of programs, CDP; strategic advisor, UN CEO Water Mandate;
board member, Alliance for Water Stewardship
Dr Sarah McMath, programme director for Competition 2017, head of strategy, Thames Water