As drought hits the UK, our politicians have their heads in the sand | Caroline Lucas
A drought has been officially declared across large swaths of England. Rivers and reservoirs evaporate before our eyes. Water may soon be rationed and crop irrigation restricted. Drought, and the extreme heat that exacerbates it, are not occasional freak events that can be called “super scorchio” once or twice a year. This is the consequence of years of inaction in the face of the climate emergency. This produces a perfect storm of energy insecurity, food supply chaos and extreme weather conditions that wreak havoc on society.
Getting this crisis under control requires both immediate and long-term solutions. Our lame duck government offers neither. It is clear that the experiment in privatizing the water companies has failed. They are made for profit, not for a purpose. The head of Thames Water – the company responsible for the supply fiasco at Northend in Oxfordshire – is set to receive £3.1million”hello golden” for signing on as CEO. English water companies across the board have paid out £72 billion to shareholders in the form of dividends.
Ed Vaizey claimed Hello Brittany this week that “you get better run businesses in the private sector”. Are these the same companies that have been reluctant to ban garden hoses for fear of annoying customers, further aggravating our drought crisis? The companies that failed to meet their own goals for repairing leaks and faulty main lines? Companies whose relentless dumping of raw sewage has ravaged our waterways?
All that profit, but the investment in our waterways is woefully insufficient. Not a single new reservoir has been built in the past three decades, and our Victorian water pipes are being replaced at a rate 10 times slower than our European neighbours. We therefore need immediate action. The Green Party calls for a urgent execution order on water companies, a reduction in obscene salaries for bosses, an end to shareholder dividends and the return of water supplies to public ownership as soon as possible.
Public ownership works and is popular. Publicly owned Scottish Water is the the most reliable utility in the UK, while Welsh Water, a non-profit organization, helped 60,000 low-income customers pay their bills. They invest more too. Scottish water has invested nearly 35% more per household in infrastructure since 2002 than privatized companies in England; it charges 14% less on water bills; and it does not pay costly dividends to shareholders.
Making it more resilient to future droughts requires long-term solutions that tackle the climate emergency at its source. Yet just when we need real climate leadership to address this urgent crisis, our government has collapsed. During last month’s heatwave, Boris Johnson avoided chairing several Cobra meetings and has barely been seen in public since. Potential leader Rishi Sunak thinks let his daughters do the recycling will help us get to net zero. It is not the tough, resolute decision-making we need to deal with the climate emergency.
Meanwhile, Liz Truss is on a bizarre crusade complaining about solar panels in the fields, when the sun is the cheapest form of energy and just cover 0.06% of UK land, much less than the area of land used by airports. To top it off, Truss also refused to raise the windfall tax on energy companies and pledged to lift the ban on fracking that destroys the climate.
The solutions to this crisis are clear. We must keep fossil fuels in the ground and provide a clean, green and affordable energy system. We need utilities to do what they say on the tin, rather than just siphon obscene profits from shareholders. The climate emergency affects us all – and we can all be part of the solution.