It never rains but it pours

Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to wash your car. Readers of the national press will have noticed that water is rapidly joining immigration, bird flu and John Prescott in the ranks of its obsessions.

With apologies to readers in the northern and western parts of the United Kingdom, who could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about, it seems that a large part of the densely-populated south east is running near empty.

The spectre of standpipes on the streets of Essex, and Wimbledon being played on sand has, inevitably, sparked demands that ‘something must be done.’ With equal inevitability, the spotlight turns on engineers and technologists to come up with a solution.

Some of the quick fixes mooted in the press border on the bizarre. The towing of icebergs from the pole to the Thames to provide a gently melting source of water is one example. Technology that can make clouds give up their water whether they want to or not is another.

Less fanciful, but still fraught with difficulties, are proposals to pipe water from the lakes of the north, ship it down via fleets of tankers, or build desalination plants capable of converting the unlimited water off the coasts of southern England into a usable supply.

The latter options could, with sufficient investment and political will, provide some sort of relief to a southern England growing ever drier. Consider, however, the huge amounts of energy needed to pump water across an entire nation . Or the vast quantities of power consumed by desalination plants. This at a time when we are worrying how we will meet our future demands for energy itself.

Water supply, like energy, roads, the railways and other elements of our national infrastructure, is made possible by engineering and technology. But many of the factors which have a profound impact on that infrastructure are entirely beyond the influence of engineers. For example, the location of the nation’s most overcrowded, economically prosperous and traffic-choked in one small-ish, dry-ish corner of its landmass.

Andrew Lee


The Engineer & The Engineer Online

PS: Many thanks to the thousands of you who have visited the pdf archive of articles from our Engineer 150th Anniversary collection. For your interest, here is a league table of the most-viewed items so far.

1. The Titanic

2. The first Rover

3. The Rolls-Royce Merlin Engine

4. The first Wembley Stadium

5. The first Engineer

For those who haven’t yet seen them, we recommend a visit. We also commend to you the articles on the U-boat, the Lovell Telescope and Concorde on the second page of pdfs.