Man or mouse, I said to myself. Spot of rain never hurt anyone, I said. It’s bound to clear up in a minute or two, I said. So I hopped on my bike in the middle of what I thought was a light summer shower, and no, my friends, it did not clear up. It came down like the monsoon. Cars seemed to take a special delight in overtaking me just as we were abreast in a lagoon-like puddle. By the time I got to City Hall my skin was pruned, my teeth were chattering and my suit was shiny with water, and just as I was emptying the contents of one squelching shoe I looked up and saw my friend Caroline Spelman on the office television, and she was telling the world we were in the middle of a drought.
Drought! I said bitterly. You must be joking. How can we tell people that they can’t have baths, when they only have to step outside to be soaked to the skin? Then I listened a bit longer, and of course I saw her point. We have just had the driest spring for 20 years, and across the country rainfall has been down about 45 per cent. The crops are miserable and wilted; the brewers and the farmers have been so short of water that the price of food and beer is apparently set to rise even higher – exactly what people don’t need in the current economic conditions. We ought to forget this June dampness and concentrate on the drought of the past few months. If the British people are seriously being advised to avoid having baths – with all the damage that may do to our international reputation for hygiene – then we need to look again at water distribution in this country.
The rain it raineth on the just and the unjust, says the Bible, but frankly it raineth a lot more in Scotland and Wales than it doth in England. It has done so throughout the dry spell. Back in May, when England was at its most parched, my executive assistant Ann Sindall went on a two-week walking holiday in Scotland. Batley-born Ann knows all about the English rain – but even she was amazed by the unremitting horizontal fire-hosing she received from the Scottish skies. According to some experts in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, we have a North-South water divide, which means that Scotland and Wales are positively sodden, while Newmarket seems to be a Sahara.
Since Scotland and Wales are on the whole higher up than England, it is surely time to do the obvious: use the principle of gravity to bring surplus rain from the mountains to irrigate and refresh the breadbasket of the country in the South and East. It is amazing how much hostility this idea provokes from the very water companies who are currently warning of shortages. If you go to the website of their front organisations, you will find the notion of a water grid denounced as “absurd” and “inefficient”. But if you talk to the excellent Professor Roger Falconer, of Cardiff University, he will tell you that they are blinkered and wrong. He has been looking at all sorts of proposals for improving our current network of canals so as to integrate them into the water supply. He talks of linking up Welsh mountain reservoirs via the Wye and the Severn with the Thames, or of sending the water from the Severn and the Trent round to East Anglia – for many years the driest part of the country.
I believe we might go even further, and retrieve J F Pownall’s magnificent 1942 plan for a Grand Contour Canal, which would follow the 310 ft contour of the hills all the way from the Scottish borders to the South East.
The water companies mount all sorts of objections. They warn that it would be a mistake to mix up water from Wales with water from the Thames, since “the chemical composition of water varies in different parts of the country, and the potential effect on habitat and species would be significant”. This sounds pretty much like tripe to me, and I am glad to say that Prof Falconer agrees. The chemical composition of water is H2O, and that is true across Britain. Then they object that any new water grid might involve some pumping, and therefore fossil fuel consumption. That is true; but then the pumping would be nothing like as energy-intensive as the desalination plants that are currently under way.
Above all, I think the water companies forget the extra benefits a network of water-bearing canals would bring. A canal is a beautiful thing, and if we have to expand the current network with some new stretches, then we should not expect the nimby frenzy you get with a new road or a high-speed railway. On the contrary, it adds to the value of your property, surely, to have a little boat tethered at the foot of your gorgeous riparian lawn. The construction of new canals would not only generate much-needed jobs to dig the thing, but further jobs in all the recreational activities that would follow. In some ways we are going through a neo-Victorian age of investment in infrastructure. We have Crossrail, the Tube upgrades, the Thames tideway tunnel, and plans for new high-speed rail.
But in energy generation, in aviation and in water supply we are woefully unimaginative. Think of the Romans: they built an incredible 31 mile aqueduct just to supply the people of Nimes with water for their ornamental fountains (since they already had plenty for bathing and drinking), and they didn’t even have mechanical diggers. We have plenty of water in Britain, and the nation of Brunel is surely capable of finding scenic and ingenious ways of getting that water to the right place at the right time. I look at the rain lashing my window as I write, and it seems mad that we are complaining of drought. It is simple mismanagement of supply.
Prof Falconer and other engineering experts will be having a conference later this year, at the Royal Academy of Engineering, to discuss a water grid. Their ideas need careful thought, but I like what I hear.