Facing up to the rising value of water and how Britain will tackle this issue

LAST month's cold spell saw temperatures plummet to a bone-chilling –19C in parts of Yorkshire, as the year ended with the coldest December in the UK since records began a century ago.

It was a reminder, should we need one, of just how unpredictable and extreme our climate can be. But despite the freezing weather that brought large parts of Europe to a standstill, scientists in the United States this week claimed that 2010 was one of the warmest years ever recorded.

China, Kenya and even Australia have battled against droughts during the past 12 months. I say even Australia, because Queensland, in the north east, is in the grip of a flood crisis that has claimed 10 lives since tropical storms first battered the region at the end of November. Australian officials say the flooded area is the size of France and Germany combined and that more than 200,000 people have been affected.

These floods come less than six months after Pakistan was hit by the worst floods in 80 years which affected as many as 20 million people and at one point left 20 per cent of the country underwater.

In the UK, too, we have experienced extreme flooding over the past decade, albeit on a smaller scale. In November, 2000, heavy rain caused widespread damage and led to a record number of severe flood warnings.

Even worse was to follow seven years later when flooding hit large swathes of the country from Yorkshire down to Gloucestershire, with some areas getting a month's worth of rainfall in the space of 24 hours.

The period between May and July was the wettest since records began and the rescue efforts that were required were the biggest in peacetime Britain.

We may be fortunate enough to live in a green and pleasant land, but for how long? While the future impact of climate change is difficult to predict, most scientists say the evidence suggests we are likely to experience extreme weather on a more regular basis and that water, and how we manage it, will become increasingly important.

Leeds University has some of the world's leading water management experts and a group of researchers recently published a paper looking at the risks facing UK water security both now and in the future. Joseph Holden, head of physical geography at Leeds University and director of water@leeds, the university's water research centre, says our climate is likely to become more volatile. "During the 80s and 90s we were fortunate to have a rather quiet period, but all the indications are that in terms of climate change we are going to experience extreme weather on a more regular basis."

This includes the risk of further major floods. "The question is do we build bigger and bigger flood defences, and who should pay for and manage them, should it be the government, or the private sector? Or do we take a different approach and learn to live with floods? We can't prevent them from happening so we need an infrastructure that is more resilient."

Prof Holden says urban planners are already adapting local environments. "By the River Aire in Leeds all the new flats built there in recent years have car parks on the ground floor so if there is any flooding it doesn't hit people's homes."

Another innovation has been the creation of so-called "blue corridors" based around the idea of making space for water in urban areas by creating ponds and pathways that help to relieve the pressure of flooding on communities situated close to rivers.

But although most of us think of the UK as being wet, droughts, too, can be a problem. Last summer, a 60-mile stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal from Wigan to Gargrave, in North Yorkshire, was closed for weeks due to drought. A hosepipe ban was also introduced in parts of the North West despite the fact that during the same month parts of the region were hit by torrential rain and flash floods. This was due to a dry start to the year which left Pennine reservoir levels low.

"Around 70 per cent of UK water comes from upland areas that are typically wet places. But if you don't get rain for two or three weeks the river flows really begin to suffer," Prof Holden explains. "Much of the UK has peat soil and although this absorbs water it doesn't release it when there is a dry spell, so there doesn't have to be extreme conditions before you start having problems."

Adrian McDonald, professor of environmental management at Leeds University and chairman of the Strategic Flood Defence Partnership for West Yorkshire, says we are more vulnerable to drought than many people realise. "People think of the UK being very wet and it is in places, but the South East of England has about the same amount of rainfall as somewhere like Jordan. Our natural rainfall tends to be in the far west and the north and the greatest demand is in the south east," he says. "If you emptied all the lakes and reservoirs in England and Wales and poured the water into Loch Ness, you would still only half fill it."

However, the impact of flooding on our water supply is perhaps the greatest concern. "We clearly face significant flood problems. If you look at the period between 2000 and 2007 we experienced significant, widespread flooding," says Prof McDonald. In Yorkshire, the landscape is vulnerable to flooding in different ways. "Somewhere like Hull is very flat, whereas the hills around Sheffield mean it faces problems of water running down into the city very quickly. So because of the topography we have some difficult places to manage in terms of flooding."

Another problem is an ageing infrastructure. "We have a sewer system that essentially dates back to the Victorian era, especially in Yorkshire. The cost of replacing it would be many billions of pounds and even repairing the infrastructure would run into billions and we can't afford to do this in a single generation."

But there are additional ways of protecting our villages, towns and cities from flooding. "We can build defences to try and hold floods at bay when they happen. We can also build more houses on stilts and make sure people have better insurance, and from an ecological point of view we can create more forests to trap water and provide rivers with more protection from sediment so they are less likely to flood."

The Environment Agency has introduced storage ponds on flood plains to absorb more water and debris dams have been created in places to check the flow of water in rivers. While in some agricultural areas communities have fenced off the edges of streams to create thicker vegetation in order to slow run off levels.

Prof McDonald believes water companies may have to work more closely together in the future. "You can never defend against every flood and there will be droughts in the future where not every water company will be able to supply everyone. At the moment most water companies supply households with water sourced from its own area, but given the stresses on the system it might be wiser for water companies to share their resources more. We saw what happened in Northern Ireland recently when they had a water shortage and this is something that needs to be addressed."

Climate change is also likely to have a knock-on affect. According to the UN, global food prices rose to a new high in December and warns that "unpredictable weather" could force grain prices even higher. The world's population is expected to rise from six to nine billion in the next few decades, meaning more mouths to feed which, in turn, will put greater demand on water supplies forcing the cost of water to rise.

Prof McDonald believes it will become an increasingly valuable commodity. "Water will become as important as oil was in the previous 50 years. At the moment it's cheap and we have come to expect it to be there for us 24-7. But if we want a more effective infrastructure and better water security then we may have to consider paying more for it."