Within a decade, London could be facing a water shortage

A headline from the water shortage of 2006. Image: Getty.

A Labour member of the London Assembly on the city’s looming water shortage.

It is said that there are five basic pre-conditions for human survival: oxygen, food, shelter, sleep and water.

Some of us might add some additional items to that list, popular entries including coffee and wine, neither of which are in danger of imminent shortage (don’t panic just yet). But as difficult as it is to imagine existence without those additional amenities, the previous five are the very basics we need in order to continue to function.

Over the next two decades, though, supply of one of those basic functions, water, is going to come under increasing strain. And most Londoners are blissfully unaware of the challenges this will present.

Water could be described as the most precious commodity of all, but it is also the most misunderstood. And London faces a very real challenge in meeting future demand. We will have to make some tough decisions if we are to guarantee security of supply in the years to come.

“But what about all that rain we get?” I hear you cry. “Didn’t the Romans very sensibly plough their furrows adjacent to the UK’s second longest river?”

Actually, London really doesn’t get that much rain. It’s an easy argument for me to make as I type away on one of the warmest days of the year, but the metrological facts are very clear. Average annual rainfall in London is 557.4mm. Compare that to Paris (2089.1mm), New York (1239.8mm) or Sydney (1242.7mm) – or even supposedly arid Mexico City (709mm) – and you soon realise that “rainy London” is something of an urban myth. As for the river, 80 per cent of the water provided to London and Home Counties is already currently drawn from rivers. We’re pushing close to capacity.


But the biggest challenge is London’s booming population. Predicted to hit 11m by 2050, it poses a huge test for the city’s policymakers. Unfortunately we Londoners don’t help matters either, having some of the highest average consumption rates in the country. The long term consequences are fairly dire: if we carry on as we are, experts anticipate supply problems by 2025, with very serious shortages by 2040.

The impact for both domestic and commercial water customers would be considerable. California’s drought is predicted to have cost the state $2.7bn last year, with a wide range of economic sectors under strain.

London itself is no stranger to drought: those old enough to remember the 1976 drought will know how severe the situation can become. In the spring of 2012, London had experienced two dry winters and was under a hosepipe ban. As that year’s Olympic Games drew ever nearer, officials begun to wonder if even more restrictive measures might be needed – until exceptionally heavy rainfall replenished supplies in the late spring.

All this demonstrates the importance of planning for London’s water future. With the election of Sadiq Khan as mayor, and Thames Water starting work on a new Water Management Plan by 2019, it’s crucial London uses this momentum to come together and find solutions to the challenges ahead. Possible solutions could include pumping water across the country from the Severn Estuary; the construction of a new reservoir in Oxfordshire to increase storage capacity; and increased demand management, through the roll out of smart metering. The least popular measure? Using reclaimed water from treated sewage.

If London is to be a vibrant, economically successful and sustainable city of 11m by the middle of this century, then it’s time policymakers turned their attention to water – even while the rest of us ponder the necessity of coffee or wine to human survival.

Leonie Cooper is a Labour London Assembly Member for Merton & Wandsworth, and the Labour group’s spokesperson on the environment.

Still thirsty? Check out this podcast we did on cities and water shortages.

 
 
 
 

CityMetric is now City Monitor! Come see us at our new home

City Monitor is now live in beta at citymonitor.ai.

CityMetric is now City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications from New Statesman Media Group. Our new site is now live in beta, so please visit us there going forward. Here’s what CityMetric readers should know about this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is now a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission is to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

Please visit citymonitor.ai going forward, where you can also sign up for our free email newsletter.


As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our new digs. You can follow City Monitor on LinkedIn and on Twitter. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

To our readers, on behalf of the City Monitor team, thank you from all of us for being such loyal CityMetric fans. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.