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Water, water, everywhere

March 2004

What were the water management successes and failures from the winter 2003-04?

Water, water everywhere

Water influences the way people work while, in turn, people influence the way the water cycle works and the uses that are made of it. Since last September (the start of the annual water year, usually marked by the onset of heavier rain), a number of interesting stories have appeared in newspapers that relate to water use. Some made the front-covers, such as Coca-Cola’s faltering attempt to sell bottled tap water, while other articles were buried closer to the sports sections! What follows are a few of the more interesting water stories to have emerged from the “wet season”. Of course, the actual lack of a wet season this year is a story in itself as our previous report “Drought, what drought?” (November 2003) explained.

December 2003 - The Water Framework Directive becomes law

On December 22nd, the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) became law. For the first time, there is now a requirement for drainage basins in Britain to be managed in a unified and coherent way. As part of this process, a total of 11 river basin districts have been designated as covering England and Wales. Each basin must now have a management plan that carefully analyses the impact that human activity is likely to have on the flows of the hydrological cycle and water quality. Our feature "It's only water: who cares?" explains this more fully.

Syllabus links: human and physical resources require careful governance

Hydrological systems ↔ Human systems

February 2004 - Bewdley tests its new removable flood defences

The village of Bewdley tested its new flood defences for the first time in February. A giant removable barrier can now be assembled within two hours, protecting this picturesque Midlands tourist town from the floodwaters of the River Severn without permanently ruining its views of the river. Bewdley was very badly flooded in autumn 2000 and many riverfront properties had to be abandoned (The Guardian, 03 November 2000). The £4 million Environment Agency (EA) barrier received its first test on February 3rd when, at peak discharge, the river rose to a level of 4.9 metres – well above the preceding level of 3.35 metres.

BBC - Picture gallery of flood defences going up in Bewdley

Residents drinking in their local pub on the north side of the Severn reported that it felt ‘spooky’ to know that the river was towering above them on the other side of the hastily-assembled flood barrier adjacent to the establishment’s front door (This is Worcestershire, 12 February 2004). Thousands of litres of water were held at bay on this occasion. Following its success, riverfront property owners are now able to introduce long-awaited home improvements such as downstairs carpets and new fitted kitchens. The high frequency of flooding in the past had meant that such improvements would have been a waste of money. Local newspapers speculate that homes will now rise in value and become a lot easier to sell. BBC reports that house prices soar as river levels fall!

While the defences held water back on the north side, however, the river burst its banks on the currently unprotected (but far less populated) south side. It will receive its own barrier in the next phase of the EA strategy for Bewdley scheduled for 2005-06 (This is Worcestershire, 12 February 2004) but is currently still vulnerable. The south side scheme has aroused controversy over the permanent loss of parking on the street there. This is one necessary cost of the scheme, as the street must remain clear at all times in case the barrier needs to be assembled there in order to bring benefits to local residents. It has been a difficult decision-making exercise for everyone involved.

This story and the decision-making issues can be researched further at the Environment Agency's website. Enter the word ‘Bewdley’ in the search field.

Syllabus links: physical environments influence human activity

Hydrological cycle → settlements (land use, land values, functional zoning)

Hazard management

February 2004 - Coca-Cola but no water in India

Following BBC Radio 4 reports, attention has been drawn to the depletion of groundwater stores in India resulting from the establishment of a Coca-Cola bottling plant. The subsidiary firm Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages was established in Kerala state in 2000. Six bore wells were dug near the village of Plachimada, tapping into local groundwater stores. Reporting in the New Statesman (02 February 2004), Mark Thomas asks whether anyone “questioned the wisdom of opening a highly water-intensive bottling plant in a drought-prone area… with dull predictability, wells dried up”. The BBC report described that local women must now travel seven kilometres to fetch water. As a result, Coca-Cola is now driving tankers full of fresh water to the village in order to make amends, following a 650-day protest carried out by local people outside the bottling plant.

Transnational Corporations (TNCs) such as Coca-Cola are keen to locate in India because its 1 billion residents represent one of the greatest emerging markets on earth. Already, the company has invested $1 billion in India over the past decade and has 60% of a market now worth $940m a year. It has 10,000 employees in India, bringing work to a further 125,000 through local multiplier effects established around its plants. This is a positive externality associated with inward investment by Coca-Cola, in stark contrast to the negative externality of groundwater depletion.

In a related story, it has emerged that both Pepsi and Coca-Cola products sold in India have more than thirty times the level of pesticide residues permitted under EU regulations. Tests found toxins such as lindane and DDT were present (The Guardian 05 February 2004). Mark Thomas suggested that “maybe the farmers can water their crops with it… and do the aphids at the same time” (New Statesman, 16 February 2004).

Syllabus links: human activity modifies physical environments

Economic development → hydrological systems (groundwater stores)

February 2004 -Flood defences make York sink

It has emerged that flood defences in York are so effective that the sub-soil underneath the ancient city has begun to dry up, causing land to subside (The Guardian, 24 February 2004). Research partly funded by English Heritage suggests that water tables have fallen because of the efficiency of outer defences that protect the city from high winter water in the River Ouse and the River Fosse. As soils dry out, they become compacted once air begins to occupy pores that had previously held water. Although soils and sub-soils often dry out naturally during summer, groundwater stores become recharged during the winter, assisted by infiltration and deep percolation from floodwater on floodplains. This is all part of the natural dynamic equilibrium of the hydrological cycle. Flood defences now prevent recharge from occurring. As the land subsides, possible consequences could include:

  • Broken sewers
  • Broken gas pipes
  • Road subsidence
  • Property subsidence
  • Damage to irreplaceable archaeological Roman and Viking remains of international importance

Syllabus links: human activity modifies physical environments

Urban management → hydrological systems (groundwater stores) + geophysical systems (subsidence)

March 2004 Norwich Union unveils its flood map

British insurers must consult a map prepared by the Environment Agency (EA) when they need to set insurance premium levels for homeowners. The EA flood map displays postcode areas that have previously been flooded. Homeowners in high-risk areas find it difficult to obtain insurance. However, the postcode system has been criticised by insurers for being too blunt an instrument – local relief features are sometimes ignored, denying insurance to people that live at the top of a hill!

The Norwich Union’s new map claims to be more accurate. Five years in the making, it offers new hope to around 600,000 people that are classified as ‘at-risk’ by the EA but who the Norwich Union believes are insurable. With more that £200 billion worth of property, land and assets at risk of flooding in the UK, the need for accurate and detailed information is vital (The Daily Telegraph, 04 March 2004). Every year, as affluence grows and people invest in more property and possessions, the potential for losses increase, reminding us that hazard risk has as much to do with the numbers of people present and the value of their possessions as it does with the environment itself.

Find out if your home or school is at risk of flooding: enter your details in the postcode field at the EA website.

Syllabus links: physical environments impact on human activity

Hydrology → settlements (insurance premiums & house prices)

Hazard assessment and prediction

March 2004 - The Coca-Cola tap water fiasco

In a story that made the front cover of many national newspapers, it was revealed that Coca-Cola’s new bottled water brand Dasani draws its supplies straight from the mains supply in Sidcup, Kent. Costing 95p for a 500ml bottle, Dasani consists of Thames tap water that has been passed through several filters in a “highly sophisticated purification process”. Calcium, magnesium and sodium bicarbonate are also added for taste. However, it quickly emerged that the purification process was, in fact, just the reverse osmosis technique used in many modest domestic water purification units. Critics of the bottled water industry have frequently pointed out that bottles rarely provide a product that is genuinely superior to tap water. It merely appears to taste better because it is usually kept chilled in a fridge (The Guardian, 02 March 2004). This story seems to lend credence to such claims.

Meanwhile, the bad press did not just end there for Coca-Cola. By mid-March, the entire UK supply of Dasani had been pulled off shop shelves because it had been found to contain unsafe levels of bromate, a cancer-causing chemical. The Guardian (20 March 2004) summarised events as follows:

“So now the full scale of Coke's PR disaster is clear. It goes something like this: take Thames Water from the tap in your factory in Sidcup, Kent; put it through a purification process, call it ‘pure’ and give it a mark-up from 0.03p to 95p per half litre; in the process, add a batch of calcium chloride, containing bromide, for ‘taste profile’; then pump ozone through it, oxidising the bromide - which is not a problem - into bromate - which is. Finally, dispatch to the shops bottles of water containing up to twice the legal limit for bromate (10 micrograms per litre)”.

Syllabus links: physical environments can be managed and exploited

Hydrological cycle (modified) → economic activity (manufacturing)

March 2004 North-East Passage opens up

Shipping experts believe that the North-East Passage – a sea route between Europe and Asia that follows the Russian coastline as far as the Bering Strait – will soon be open all-year round. Scientists say that rapid thawing of the Arctic icecap means that the Passage is unlikely to freeze over during winter for much longer. Already, much of the icecap is half as thick as it was 50 years ago (The Daily Telegraph, 04 March 2004). Quoting researchers at the Fridtjof Nansens Institute in Norway, newspaper reports speculated that it could soon become a viable economic substitute to the current shipping route through the Suez Canal (Egypt) which is much longer.

Syllabus links: human activity modifies physical environments

Global economic development (widely believed to be linked with global warming) → global hydrological systems (ice storage)→global trade routes and their economic significance.

Compiled and written by Dr Simon Oakes who works for the Flood Hazard Research Centre (Middlesex University) and Mander Portman Woodward School (London). He is a senior examiner for Edexcel.

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