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Hugo Rifkind

Britain is in drought, and my shoes squelch on the way to work

28 April 2012

2:00 PM

28 April 2012

2:00 PM

 ‘Sir,’ read a letter in the Daily Telegraph last week. ‘Is this the wettest drought since records began?’

High five, David Stevens of Poole, Dorset. I couldn’t have put it better myself. Drought? A lack of water? The sodding stuff is falling from the sky. All day, every day. Drought? Are you sodding kidding me?

OK, no more sodding  I shall try to restrain myself. But it’s not easy. You know me. I’m a rationalist. I pride myself on not being the sort of person who steps outside in December, shivers, and thinks ‘global warming must be a myth!’ Or, indeed, who basks in an unusually warm February and decides that it isn’t one.

I have visited the Met Office. I did not find them to be secret communists with an agenda to overthrow capitalism. They were just geeks with beards, who were really into weather. It was quite the eye-opener. Since then, when the meteorological consensus seems counterintuitive, I just shrug and think, ‘well, it’s probably more complicated than that’. But now? I’m struggling. Britain is in drought, and yet my shoes squelch on the way into work. And I’m not having it.

I’m prepared to accept that the south-east has been unusually dry for the past two years. It hasn’t felt like that, not since I bought a barbecue, but seeing as I’m not one of those people that Delingpole interviews for controversial cover stories, I don’t regard anecdotage as evidence. I entirely accept that there’s a lot less water around than usual. But what we have is still… hmmm, how to put this? Quite a lot of water.

It’s making me an angry person. According to an article I read in the Guardian, this drought exposes us to the risk of flooding. Yeah. ‘When soils are particularly dry and compacted, sudden sharp rainfall can lead to an even worse situation,’ I read, ‘as the rain washes off the surface and has nowhere to go.’

Water having nowhere to go? In a drought? I am purple in the face right now. There cannot be too much water around, and also a drought. Does nobody see? We are not using the right words. We don’t mean ‘drought’. What we mean is ‘pisspoor management of the water supply’.

When the weather shuts down Britain, when a dusting of snow closes airports and roads, or a hot sun causes motorways to melt and trains to become ovens, or high winds make it unsafe, quite hilariously, to go anywhere near big concrete bridges, we always hear the same excuse. ‘Sure,’ they say. ‘Canadian airports remain open in 20 feet of snow, Saudi Arabia has roads, and Israel doesn’t suffer droughts. But that is because these countries face extreme conditions frequently. Britain hardly ever does. Making provision for them just doesn’t make economic sense.’

With snow and sun, that’s an argument I’ll buy, because such disruptions are indeed rare. But rain? You can’t say we’ve not had enough rain for years, and simultaneously say it’s reasonable that we’ve no mechanism for harvesting the water falling from the sky. It’s like saying you are broke, even though there are tenners falling from the sky, because you just can’t be arsed to go outside and get them.

The stats on this stuff are awesome. Ofwat reckons that the water companies of England and Wales leaked 3.3 billion litres of water a day last year, enough to have supplied a third of Britain. The leaks from Thames Water alone would fill Wembley Stadium in a day and a half. You can defend this, a bit, in a country where it rains enough. But you cannot defend it while claiming it isn’t raining enough. Especially not when it so palpably is.

I know the water companies are getting better — and they’ll probably write in, explaining sniffily just how much better. But that doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got empty reservoirs and a hosepipe ban, and gallons of water drowning our streets. Crossing London in ‘the worst drought since 1976’ with my clinging trousers, and a drainpipe drip down the back of my weary neck, I’m getting increasingly soddenly, soddingly sick of being called ‘naive’ for assuming there ought to be some kind of link between the two.


Cara Trimingham, who you might know as the current squeeze of the lovely Chris Huhne, is suing the Daily Mail over articles about her sex life. This week, the High Court heard that she herself has frequently sold stories to tabloids about the sex lives of other public figures, including Russell Crowe and, um, Nick Clegg.

This is one to watch. I used to be a diarist, gathering titbits from those in the know. I was a lousy one, so my contacts book was a bit thin. Even I, though, know that all sorts of people provide diary stories. Sometimes they’re after £50, sometimes they’re settling old scores, sometimes they just enjoy the feeling of power and influence. Once you get started, it’s a bit like a compulsion.

Britain’s media has many critics today, many of them righteous. But even a poor diarist has a radar — if you like, a sort of gossip gaydar — and looking at some of them, I simply cannot believe that they never got their hands dirty in just this sort of way. Because an MP selling diary stories would be quite bad, wouldn’t it? Somebody should be looking into it. Although don’t start with me. Nobody ever told me anything.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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