Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dry me a river

The River Derwent in Derbyshire dried up last year (photo nicked from The Guardian)

Worrying news in this morning's Observer that Britain may well be facing a super drought.

This follows 2011 being the driest year for almost a century, meaning that levels in underground aquifers are critically low. To make matters worse the Environment Agency is being forced to pump a lot of the remaining groundwater into ponds and rivers to prevent them drying up, with obvious catastrophic results for wildlife.

The last time anything even remotely similar to this happened was in 1976 and I clearly remember the giant forest fires that broke out in the New Forest, and the aftermath of a blackened smouldering landscape. I really hope we are not going to face a repeat of that this year.

But it's not just the wildlife that is going to be decimated if it doesn't start raining hard soon (and continue raining hard for several weeks) - farmers are looking at the possibility of widespread crop failures in East Anglia and the south east - England's breadbasket regions. They could, of course, switch from crops which use a lot of water - such as potatoes - to crops which use far less, as the article makes clear. But the farmers - locked into the logic of the big agribusiness model - have long term contracts to supply the nation's supermarkets and are not able to switch crops just like that.


So it seems that climate change could be poised to hit Britain hard unless we introduce flexibility into the all-too-rigid systems controlled by the supermarkets. Of course, to do so, would also mean that we'd have to look at land reform. At present it is perfectly possible to build a giant supermarket on a greenfield site, but practically impossible to erect a small dwelling for use by a family interested in farming the land in a holistic manner.

Perhaps England could follow the lead of Wales, where it has been made easier for small scale farmers to obtain planning permission for dwellings on their productive land. This sane decision means that Welsh people will have far greater access to fresh, local food. It'll be interesting to see if a transition to thins kind of thinking will come in 'through the back door' at the local authority level in England. After all, local authorities are supposed to have plans that address Agenda 21.

But all this won't make it rain. I fear for the wildlife in the nation's rivers. Once a river dries up it's one hell of a job - and an expensive one too - to nurse it back to health. Those who are 'peak oil aware' will be well familiar with this kind of predicament whereby an over exploited natural resource is placed on life support by  unsustainable means (in this case pumping groundwater into rivers using diesel driven pumps). With escalating oil prices these kinds of non-solutions will become more and more expensive until they are untenable, and one more thread in the Earth's precious life support systems will have been cut.

My quote of the week comes from a review of Craig Dilworth's book Too Smart For Our Own Good : "What's an intelligent species like us doing in a predicament like this?"

That's a good question.

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