There's no denying that the world is becoming a drier place. Those of us familiar with Portugal and Spain will know this only too well.

Even on the famously sodden, windswept shores of Blighty, we face the prospect of future water shortages. In Britain, the problems aren't necessarily down to the lack of rainfall per se but it's more to do with what I'll refer to as the 'four P's'. That's 'Politics', 'Profit', 'Pollution' and 'Population'. All of these factors combine to drain away that most precious of resources - water.

Water is something that most of us in Western Europe take for granted. For example, how many of us take ourselves down to the local leisure centre for a nice swim in an Olympic-sized (50-meter) swimming pool? But when you think about it, that pool holds a whopping 2.5 million litres of water; some of them even more! Of course, after doing a few lengths, most of us would elect to take a refreshing shower. However, I believe that this is something that none of us can just take for granted in future. We're living on borrowed time and there's plenty of evidence to support this view.

Effectively, what we're doing is taking clean water from the natural environment and then pumping it all back in a grossly polluted form. The water going back into the environment is often laden with noxious chemicals, raw sewage and all manner of other nasties. This kind of thing has been going on for generations but it was never really a case of pumping it out of sight - out of mind. This kind of stuff has a nasty habit of coming back and biting us on the derriere.

Clean water has always been a key element in sustaining our modern Western lifestyles. In fact, a reliable water supply has been key to sustaining every advanced culture throughout history. Incredible feats of engineering were undertaken to keep water flowing from Roman settlements to the great civilizations of South America. But the way we're going in the modern era, something will surely have to give because even here in the rainy UK, the demands made on water resources are clearly unsustainable.

Despite our wet British climate, we are nevertheless exposed to much the same challenges as so many other regions of the world. We're simply using more water than can sustainably be supplied. Demand is outstripping supply.

The UK manages to emulate many global water supply problems. The root of such problems include corporate misconduct, over-abstraction, pollution, underinvestment as well as a myriad of regulatory failings which collectively lead to environmental harm.

On average the UK’s annual rainfall hovers around the 1100mm to 1200mm mark. Despite our fabled wet climate and winter storms, many parts of the UK face significant future water shortages.

When looking at the average figures, much of the 1100mm to 1200mm rainfall statistics are calculated by including precipitation figures for the rainier parts of the country such as Wales, northern England and Scotland. In south-eastern England, the average annual rainfall figure is around 600mm. Astonishingly, that's actually drier than some parts of Australia. As sod's law would have it, south-East Britain also happens to be the UK’s most populated region; home to over 18 million souls (including London). The problem is, it's drying up and it's doing so rapidly.

Figures compiled by the UK government demonstrate that in England nearly a third of the country's groundwater aquifers and nearly a fifth of rivers and reservoirs have more water taken out than is being replenished. This is clearly unsustainable.

Alarmingly, not one single English river is currently in good ecological health. This fact is not bandied about, so many of us remain oblivious to what is becoming a growing problem. A problem that we're all responsible for in some way or other because at least half the freshwater that's used in Britain is abstracted for domestic use. Each household uses over 1500 litres of water each day. That's the water we use for toilets, dishwashers, washing machines, showers, baths and garden hoses.

Until recently, freshwater shortage was considered a localised issue that blighted only arid or semi-arid regions. But climate change has made this issue a global problem that has the potential to impact the lives of millions more people.

Risks to health

One of the top-five risks to the health of the global economy is now considered to be water shortage. Already, 50% of the global population (almost 4bn people) reside in regions affected by severe water scarcity for at least a month each year. But the most sobering figure suggests that 500 million people face severe water shortages all year round.

Our world has a finite amount of fresh water. All the water on Earth has been here since the birth of the planet. Even our own bodies are made up of over 60% water. So we are as much part of the water cycle as any lake, snow drift or glacier.

Satellite images taken over time show how some lakes and dams have shrunk by up to 80% over the last 25 years. Many rivers no longer actually make it to the sea because so much water has been sucked out of the system to supply farms (irrigation), households and heavy industry.

Aquifers from Spain, the US to India are also being depleted at an astounding rate. Experts have suggested that if we continue these trends we will need 50% more water by mid-century compared with what was used only 25 years ago. Finding that much extra water will not be feasible. In a nutshell, water scarcity has the very real capacity to adversely impact all of our lives.

Although it's clear that nature plays a vital role, major water crises are often caused by mismanagement. However, as climate change plays an increasing role in all of this, weather patterns (including precipitation) changes are causing havoc and misery to many millions of people. Many become climate refugees as they are forced to move away from their homelands.

The time to act is surely now, but sadly, little is actually being done in response to this issue. Humanity appears to be sleepwalking into an impending disaster. As things stand, we are squandering precious fresh water on which our very survival depends.

Global leaders can either continue going about matters on a business-as-usual basis or they can take measures to change habits and attitudes. Before it’s too late.


Douglas Hughes is a UK-based writer producing general interest articles ranging from travel pieces to classic motoring. 

Douglas Hughes