Ten years ago, a visiting director from the Met Office advised me to invest in reservoirs, field drainage, and polytunnels in preparation for climate change. Confidence on the detail was low, but she correctly predicted that the main problem for farmers would not be rising average temperatures, but more the loss of the predictable, temperate weather patterns that agricultural practice is built on: more and longer droughts in summer, interspersed with unpredictable deluges, and wet winters with water-logged soils.
We have since more than doubled our area of polytunnels and volume of water storage, but it still isn’t enough to provide resilience to the changes we are now seeing. We did come close to building another 10,000m3 of water storage after the drought of 2018, but with so much uncertainty around farming post-Brexit, it was hard to justify an investment with a 50-year return.
We are not alone; despite booming executive pay, bonuses, and investor dividends, the UK’s water companies (privatised in 1989) have not built a single reservoir since 1991. More reservoirs were built during World War II than in the 33 years since privatisation.
Watching crops wither and wilt under a merciless sun, as the dry clay linings of our empty reservoirs crack, I lament our own inadequate assessment of the risk that climate change posed and the investment needed for resilience. It costs about £5 per m3 of water contained to build a clay-lined reservoir.
For those of you who are not accountants, that might sound really stupid – and you would be right. Doing nothing and hoping for the best is not the way to fight, or cope with, climate change. Guy Singh-Watson
In a dry year, 600m3 of water are needed to grow an acre of lettuce, which will yield 20,000 heads worth £10,000 at harvest; so, an investment of £3000 (£5 per m3 x 600m3) can pay for itself three times over in one year if it saves a crop.
The problem is that you might only have used that extra water once every 20 years in the past, and perhaps once every five years in the future. Combined with the average profit on a crop of lettuces (very different to the sales value) being so low, this makes it hard to accommodate the return on investment in the budget without a much needed, but increasingly rare, very long-term view on investment.
For those of you who are not accountants, that might sound really stupid – and you would be right. Doing nothing and hoping for the best is not the way to fight, or cope with, climate change. We should have spent the money, and so should our water companies.