Abstract thoughts

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You may think I’m insane for wasting column inches on the scarcity of water while most of the country lies under inches of it. Surely it’s like a drowning person wasting their last gasp by calling out for a drink.

The surface is indeed saturated and our feet are soggy, but it is what’s going on underground that deserves a moment’s thought. Right now, vast quantities of water are being removed from the natural aquifers beneath us.

This process is called abstraction and involves pumping out underground water known as groundwater. It is one of those invisible activities that we don’t often stop to consider.

The latest figures published by DEFRA for England and Wales show that on average 14 billion cubic metres of water were abstracted from underground sources every year for the period 2000-2012. This equates to over 15,000 Olympic swimming pools of H20 every single day.

Our groundwater is purified by rock and is perfect for consumption with very little treatment. It provides a third of our drinking water, and is mixed with water from rivers which is less pure. The electricity supply also massively relies on abstraction as most power plants (nuclear or fossil fuel) require large quantities of water in order to operate. It is also utilised by agriculture and industry, although to a lesser extent.

So what’s the problem? There’s plenty of rain at the moment so surely there’s loads of available water. If only it was so simple. The issue is that if abstraction rates aren’t right, it only takes a few months of drought to seriously affect the levels. This has implications for our water supply and for industry, but more immediately nature (as always) takes the hit.

All rivers and wetlands are partly fed by groundwater and some depend on it completely.

Over-abstraction literally sucks the life out of these unique and delicate ecosystems. Fish populations collapse, rare mammals such as water voles struggle to survive and butterflies such as the iconic swallowtail are threatened.

Many places, such as Catfield Fen in the Norfolk Broads, are showing the stresses of over-abstraction. With climate change, population growth and lifestyle changes, the challenges for managing water sustainably look likely to grow.

The Government admits that the current system, whereby landowners obtain a licence to abstract, is outdated and has failed to respond to over-abstraction. The Environment Agency is currently consulting on a new system which would enable the trading of licences and also aims to reduce the impact on important sites for nature.

We need abstraction, but done badly all of us will suffer. The new system will have to be fleet of foot and far more sensitive to the impacts on our region’s special, natural places. It’s our water, a collective asset, so we ignore what is going on under the ground at our peril.

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