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Environment: Drought

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2011


Asked By

My Lords, the Government held a drought summit on 16 May at which a number of actions were agreed. The Environment Agency is now providing weekly updates on the situation and the impact of dry weather. It will report back shortly on the likely impacts of a prolonged drought and the plans in hand to manage it. On 10 June, the Government, with the Environment Agency, met abstractors from a wide range of sectors to look at ways of making water go further. We will keep the situation closely under review and reconvene the drought summit later this month.

My Lords, it was indeed inevitable that it would pour with rain since tabling this Question, but the situation, particularly in central and eastern England, remains severe. May I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to ensure that due priority is given now and in the future to food production and its security in the wise use of our nation’s water resources?

Yes, I think that noble Lords will all remember Denis Howell. The vital link between water resources and food production has been a feature of government thinking from the Chatham House paper of the Government Chief Scientist, Sir John Beddington, through to the Royal Society’s report Reaping the Benefits, to the recent report of the Foresight group. These global views are equally applicable in this country, which is why water management will be a feature of the forthcoming water White Paper.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the comments made by the Lord Mayor of London yesterday that the shortages of water in London might be answered by providing more reservoirs in Wales, fed by a network of canals through to London? Can he give an assurance that in view of the controversial nature of any such proposal in Wales, there would be discussion with the Government of Wales before any action was taken?

My Lords, my farm, like others, has received less than three-quarters of an inch of rain since 23 February, and most of it over the last few days. The grass cut for winter feed for cattle has yielded just 40 per cent of what it would normally have done. Will the Government give a one-off permission to cut and bale the six-metre margins to try to make up some of the difference?

I live not very far away from my noble friend and can vouch for the fact that it is still very dry even after the weekend’s rain. I thank him for his suggestion. Grass and forage are a problem for livestock producers. However, on 2 June, Natural England issued advice to farmers who are in environmental schemes and have been hit by the spring drought about how they might manage their agreements. Natural England wants to ensure that the appropriate derogations are available to help farmers deal with the consequences of a prolonged period of dry weather. If any farmer needs further information or advice about the dry weather and their environmental stewardship agreements they should contact Natural England.

My Lords, with 20 per cent of cereal crops already ruined by the dry weather this is a serious problem for farmers, as we have heard. It is also a worry for consumers as food prices continue to rise. Clearly Governments cannot order the weather, but they are responsible for policy on water management and abstraction. The Government were due to publish a water White Paper this month. Why is this urgent piece of work now delayed until December?

I think that the Government would want to get any White Paper which they brought forward on this issue right. I do not deny at all the premise of the noble Lord’s question: it is a very serious situation for cereal producers and farmers in general, and it has a knock-on effect on feedstuffs, foodstuffs and consumers as a whole. That is why the Government are working with the industry and other abstractors to make sure that the water that is available is being properly used without hazarding the biodiversity agenda, which is also important.

My Lords, have the Government given any thought to the possibility of a national water grid? As we heard from the noble Lord opposite, Wales has had more than its fair share of rain, and certainly parts of north-west Scotland have had more than their fair share. There is a grid for gas across most of Europe. Has any work been done to try to work out a way of transmitting water to enliven those parts of the world such as that of my noble friend Lord Cathcart which is so drought-stricken?

I think that noble Lords will find that more will be said on this in the White Paper. A good deal of water is already transferred within the United Kingdom. There are some longer links; Welsh water goes all over the place already—for which the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, will no doubt vouch—and there are links between the fenland waterways and those of Essex. Ofwat is looking at its regulatory regimes to see if there are ways in which they inhibit the trading of water between companies. The water companies themselves are key agents of the distribution of water in this country.