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Saturday, 11 November 2017


For a decade I was heavily engaged with the water business in the UK. Much earlier, as a development economist in the nineteen-seventies I was made fully aware of the vital role of water in influencing the survival of many peoples, and standards of living worldwide.

I could also note that as the 'green revolution' [already forgotten] was implemented in the 'seventies to enable the huge growth of the human population - without mass starvation - to take place [as it has in the past four decades] there were bound to be problems for the future, deposited by the changes that were being implemented in world farming.

One of the biggest engines of global economic development was the massively increased use of nitrates in fertilising the soil, enabling yields to be increased massively as new combinations of crop breeds with farming techniques pushed up the typical yield per acre; on both peasant farms in emergent countries to the massive acreages under single managements in North America, parts of Latin America, the former USSR and adaptable areas of the European Union like East Anglia.

The cost of treating water for human consumption has included rising costs for reducing the nitrate content of riverwater as more of the stuff has been washed into the rivers in the decades of heavy use. Now the appropriate government agency has produced a report about the 'nitrate time-bomb'. Some of the nitrates that have been absorbed into surface water have filtered down into the middle strata of rocks, and it is inevitable that it will continue to descend until it reaches the deep, porous layers known as the aquifers. These are the rocks that are approached by boreholes, to bring the trapped water to the surface and to be used for human consumption. The aquifers in much of China and some regions of India have been heavily exploited already, and in those zones deeper and deeper bores are needed to maintain the water supply to the growing cities. Although the problem is less acute in Europe, the south-east of the UK [for example] has low rainfall and rising population, and therefore makes significant use of aquifers in periods of relatively low rainfall so that abstractions from rivers has to be limited.

The unstoppable progress of nitrates from past decades' farming towards the aquifers presages a greater cost for water suppliers [whether state controlled or corporate], This is absolutely inescapable: people may be persuaded to use less water - perhaps even by the imposition of 'rationing by price' - but the demand will continue inexorably to demand the expenditure on potability.

As the seas fill with plastic and the toxicity of urban air is increasingly recognised - and redressed - humans' access to the basic absolute necessities of air and water is becoming more costly. In an economy where real-terms growth faltered in the Thatcher era and has since been negative in many years, affording the essentials is becoming more expensive: and 'we ain't seen nothing yet!'

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