21/04/2012 12:54 BST

UK Drought: How Close Is The UK To Waterpocalypse?

For those with an apocalyptic imagination and a tabloid subscription, the future of drought-stricken Britain seems increasingly bleak.

The statistics alone read like the introduction to a sci-fi film: more than 35m people in England are currently living under drought conditions; two of the driest winters in history, and the driest March in 59 years, mean that underground water and reservoir levels are falling at the fastest rate for two decades; the Met Office says there is a good chance this spring could see the least rainwater since (in that dreaded phrase) "records began" - and there is no end on the forecasted horizon.

Now some are thirstily reporting the terrifying possibility that "specially imported foreign water" might have to be brought to the UK using giant ships to quench our demand, while water bosses are threatening to sell water from region to region "like oil".

So how close really is the UK to a 'Mad Max' vision of the future, where water is traded in the deserts of Sussex and Surrey by Evian-tattooed wildmen atop three-wheeled motorcycles?

And what can we do to avoid ever getting there?

Our Last Resort? The Cost Of Importing Water By Tanker

If the UK theoretically ran out of water completely it would be technically possible to bring in water via tanker. But it's not cheap.

Several major countries have attempted it, however.

When Jersey experienced its own drought crisis in November it looked at keeping its population in water in this way, and for one tanker containing 100m litres of water - enough for five days supply for Jersey's 150,000 people - the water authorities there were quoted around £1m.

Howard Snowden, managing director of Jersey Water, said the tanker would have come via Norway, where it would have filled up with freshwater near to the fjords.

Given a similar structure, it would cost (very roughly) about £46m per day to provide basic water to the 35m people currently experiencing drought in the UK.

Extended over a six month period, that would cost the UK around £8.3bn just for the raw water alone, ignoring the massive cost of distribution. In reality such a monumental effort would either prove impossible or many times more expensive. Rapid expansion of desalination capacity with temporary equipment would also prove very costly.

A wooden branch lies in the dry mud at the bank of the half-full Bewl water reservoir in Kent

UK Drought: The Real Problem And The Real Solution

Fortunately, despite the fears of some newspapers, we're nowhere near the last resort, say experts.

"It sounds a little bit like scaremongering to me," said Justin Taberham, director of policy at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM), dryly remarking on the specific story that appeared in the Daily Mirror citing the possibility of mass water imports.

But that's no reason not to worry, he says. The UK is facing a water crisis and it'll take more than a few days of rain to fix it.

"The situation at the moment is not good, in terms of the fact we've had two really dry winters, and pretty dry periods in the interim… but what interests me is the long term - and how we actually solve the situation."

Solving that problem is something in which a lot of people have an interest. Quick-fixes suggested in recent days include encouraging the creation of private boreholes, which can be drilled on private land without a licence, but which the Environment Agency warns simply take water from the existing supply.

Mass infrastructure projects, which would see water transported from regions with a surplus to the south east, have also been promoted. The government proposed an 'inter-connected' strategy in a 2012 white paper, and a recent announcement by Severn Trent that it will sell 30m litres of water a day by transporting it from the Midlands to the East of England suggests there is some life in the idea.

More controversially, John Elfed Jones, who is a former chairman and CEO of Welsh Water, has argued that the region should sell its "white gold" like "oil" to the parched English counties.

Unfortunately there are very clear and intractable problems with creating an extended "water grid", Taberham points out.

"Water is heavy, it's hard to pipe and it's really expensive in terms of energy," he said.

"There is no way that it would be sensible, either using tankers or great big pipes from Scotland or any other part of the country to the south east."

Above: it's been a wet few days but the causes of the drought go back more than a year

'The Public Don't Seem To Understand And Value Water'

So if the UK's future is neither a parched water-free wasteland or a futuristic aquatic paradise, what is it? And how do we get there?

The answer is simple, Taberham says, if a bit unexciting: be sensible.

"The only real answer in the UK is a more integrated approach where we think about water as a more valuable resource," he says.

"We have this public attitude that 'open your tap and it's there'. The public don't seem to understand and value water."

Taberham points to the example of southern Australia, which has much less rainfall than the UK but which captures - and uses - much more water per capita.

"If you have water coming down, you grab it," he says. "For every drop of water they plan where it's going to go, how they can grab it and take it back into ground water, store it and get it back into boreholes."

The key for the UK, Taberham argues, is to introduce simple measures such as directing rain water to areas of vegetation so it can soak into the groundwater, and not straight into drainage pipes. He also proposes compulsory metering for all properties, not just new builds, and a new pricing model which would see non-vital water charged at a much higher rate.

Currently around 40% of households have water meters says Owfat, and the aim is to have half with meters by 2015. But Taberham is among those calling for the industry to move quicker, and with more urgency.

"There are a lot of countries doing it right - it's about time we did," he says.

Some economists go further. Tim Leunig, chief economist at CentreForum, argues that the rich should be able to pay for extra water for gardening and paddling pools - and that the money raised should be paid to private business as rewards for using less. Under his plan, water companies would offer compensation to commercial water users to cut usage, and fund it by charging families a premium above basic needs.

"If gardeners are willing to pay for more water to be collected or desalinated, we should collect or desalinate more water. Just as if people are willing to pay the cost of producing more chocolate biscuits we produce more chocolate biscuits," he said.

"You don't want someone having a swimming pool and someone going thirsty and dying," Leunig said. "That's clearly not good. But so long as everybody has everything they need for every possible version of basic needs then the rest of it to me seems to be up for grabs."

'Water: The Social Context'

There are obvious limits of the role of markets in water supply, Leunig admits. Allowing water companies to put up prices in a drought would simply give them an incentive to not build enough reservoirs, for instance. But if price increases go directly to ensuring adequate supplies - whether through reducing usage or increasing supply - they should do it.

"If they put up prices in order to pay someone else to use less water, that's fine - they're not gaining. Or if they put up prices to pay for a reservoir, the water company isn't gaining because it's all going in the cost of the reservoir or desalination plant," he said.

As for Wales selling water to England, Leunig sees no problem with that either. "After all the people of Wales bank with banks based in London," he says: "And the people of London charge them for banking."

Judging by the public reaction to Leunig's proposal, however, the idea of charging a premium for paddling pools still runs counter to how we think about water.

"He wants to be able to pay to have his paddling pool filled and the rest of society can go hang," one Telegraph commenter wrote. "What a horrible self-indulgent world you inhabit," wrote another.

For consumer groups, Leunig's proposal underestimates the "social" value of water.

"He's an economist and he's thinking in cost terms," said Deryk Hall, head of policy and research at the Consumer Council For Water. "But one of the things we think is important is to think in social terms."

"[Block tariffs] have unintended consequences for large families. Basic needs for individual families change. Companies don't have that sort of information, and if they did they've have all sorts of difficulties around data protection.

"This plan would also have unintended consequences for customers with medical conditions - those who use large amounts of water, as a result of skin conditions for example."

Those water restrictions and hosepipe bans that are in place are there simply because there isn't enough to go around, Hall points out. Leunig argues companies reducing wastage could make up the shortfall, but Hall isn't convinced.

"The issue is that the amount of water that we have in what is meant to be a fairly wet country is a lot lower than it has been for quite some time… If people are going to use more water and are willing to pay for that - and obviously Mr Leunig is quite clearly willing to pay extra for filling a paddling pool - our supply could run out or get down to critical levels - and you end up with standpipes in the street."

'Let It Rain: The Global Water Crisis'

Ultimately the only thing that can reduce a drought in the short term is rain, experts admit. And lots of it.

In the meantime, people have to be prepared to make sacrifices, and realise the value of something that seems like it should be free - but isn't.

Environmental campaigners agree, especially in a global context.

For it isn't only the UK facing a water crisis - if anything, we're making it worse. The 'virtual water' involved in making the food, clothes and other products we import from around the world mean that the UK only produces about two-fifths of all the water it uses.

"By importing water intensive products such as cotton, food (like rice and sugarcane) and industrial products, countries are having an impact on water basins outside their territory," WWF's senior water advisor, Ashok Chapagain said.

"A study published by WWF in 2008 shows that about 60% of our water footprint is outside the UK."

So before we worry about importing water by the tanker-load, maybe we should consider the water we're already wasting around the world?

"Water scarcity affects at least 2.7 billion people in 201 river basins, for at least one month a year," Chapagain said.

"International trade and the globalisation of the supply chain contribute to making water scarcity a global issue."