Water as power
Slugs are not my favourite beings. A shower in the evening brings scores of shiny bodies heading like slow, determined bullets for the vegetables on my garden wall. But for all their slow munching destructive capacity, they are so easily destroyed themselves, squashed underfoot, disintegrated by a touch of something salty, just a precarious bag of watery stuff, really. At this time of the year I develop maybe a tiny iota of sympathy for the slug as hayfever makes me very aware of being 70% water myself. My nose and eyes seem to run endlessly and I sneeze, sneeze, sneeze as my body tries to rid itself of the pollen irritants.
We are water and our relationship to water exerts a constant semi conscious power in our existence. Just stop and ask your body now about your water level - it will give you an instant read out, remind you of the last time you drank, tell you if you need to take on water or indeed to get rid of it. We only operate at all at a certain level of hydration and this survival imperative affects our social relationships. My partner tells a story about travelling on a motorbike in Morocco in the early ‘70s. He was on his own, rough camping in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. One day he found he was travelling with very little water in heat so powerful that just to breathe in seared the inside of his nostrils. There was no shade, just the road, rocks and sand dunes. Eventually he came to four large trees and stopped – there was a pick up under one and obviously people somewhere close. Children materialised, as they do, to stare at him and at the bike. He drank the last three inches of hot water in his bottle and then gestured to the children in the hope of more. The oldest, about twelve, said “Agua,” nodded and ran off into the sand dunes. Sometime later he reappeared with the bottle now grimy and finger marked but full of water. Being in no state to care, my partner drank his fill. The children looked for a bit longer and then the older one said “Argent?” begging in the way that children do when moneyed foreigners pass through. My partner misinterpreted him, pointing at the water bottle, saying “Agua – argent? Argent – agua?” The look on the child’s face was first of confusion and then of shame and horror. In his society you didn’t ask a traveller for money for water, that essential of survival.
Here in the north west of England our relationship with water scarcity can be less respectful because we generally have more than enough of it even in dry seasons. On the other hand we know the power of too much water – flooding is expected in valley bottoms and settlements are positioned to be just out of reach of the highest expected levels. As a new head teacher in a school up the Lune Valley I was reassured by the long serving Bursar “We don’t evacuate the building till the water reaches the next field but one.” This power of water in the area has historically been exploited to produce another of our survival requirements – energy. All over Cumbria and north Lancashire there are the remains of nineteenth and early twentieth century hydro power installations. There are weirs and disused wheel houses which provided power for factories and homes until electricity supply from large utilities became generally available and small hydro schemes were no longer viable. People here are just beginning to see the potential for hydro power once more, with many schemes including Beetham, Settle, Kentmere, New Mills, Otterspool all at various stages from drawing board to full operation.
Concerns about our carbon footprint and energy security led Anne Chapman, a former Green party councillor, to set up an energy co-operative, Morecambe Bay Community Renewables last year and I am one of its directors. We currently have a £105,000 share offer out for our first scheme – installing the solar panels on the fantastic Lancaster Co-housing scheme at Halton – so if any of you reading fancy an ethical investment with a reasonable return, look us up, check out the prospectus, tell your friends - we need you. Our next possible venture is ten times more ambitious: we are investigating the possibility of installing three Archimedes screw turbines in the Lune River, just above Skerton Weir in Lancaster. It is a wonderful site, with a historic weir and the ability to provide the power for the social housing blocks on the north side of the river. The weir has already attracted the interest of staff and students at Lancaster University who have been in the river studying aspects of the site. The Engineering Department includes George Aggidis, one of the Britain’s experts on small scale hydro-power and there is great potential for us to work in partnership. There are still many questions to be answered. Can the scheme provide enough power to be viable? Will the problems with debris coming down river prove insurmountable? How do we deal with the effects of salt water on the turbines? What effect will there be on migrating salmon? Notwithstanding the difficulties, setting up a hydro scheme is a wonderfully exciting prospect – harnessing that power of water to give us power, providing not just a little energy security but most of all a visible manifestation, an encouragement to everyone who sees it to think of water in a new way.