Harmful (over-)abstraction

[I nearly titled this post “Abstraction considered harmful”, but then thought better of it.]

The other day, my partner Melinda reported the following text that came with a video about fly fishing in Hampshire: “Highlighting the beauty of southern England’s chalk streams, the birth place of modern fly fishing. Threatened by abstraction and polution, [ … ]”. What kind of error could “threatened by abstraction and pollution” be? I was leaning towards a Cupertino for obstruction, or maybe the problem was construction?

There was a bit of banter of Facebook, until a friend from Scotland set us right: no error. Abstraction, she reminded us, is simply a term for the removal of water from a source. The OED has under abstraction, sense 2a:

2.a. The action of taking something away; the action or process of withdrawing or removing something from a larger quantity or whole; (now) esp. the extraction of water from a river or other source for domestic or industrial use.

It’s a little bit closer to industry jargon than the more commonly used extraction. The dictionary doesn’t say if the term is more common in British English. The people more familiar with it in general use were indeed British.

And yes, the ecosystems of the Avon, Test, Allen and other chalk streams, that is, rivers set in the southern English chalk formation and influenced by its specific geology and geochemistry, are under pressure. Quote from the WWF, previous link (boldface in the original):

Since Roman times, chalk stream channels have been progressively modified, for navigation, transport, agriculture, landscaping and milling.

In the 20th century a sprawling suburbia demanded more and more water. Drilling technology improved and deep boreholes were sunk.

The effects of abstraction have spread, and today there’s barely a chalk stream left that doesn’t feel its impact – in some cases a deadly impact.

All the rivers identified in the Rivers on the Edge project supply millions of litres of water per day – and all are officially classed as “over-abstracted” by the Environment Agency.

By 2020, increasing population will mean total demand for water is likely to be around 5% higher than today – that’s an extra 800 million litres of water per day.

And of course climate change scenarios suggest river flows in late summer and early autumn may reduce by as much as 80% by 2050, with a 15% reduction in total annual average flow.

There are currently efforts afoot to get a handle on the problem.

Edit: As John Lawler pointed out on Facebook, and I should probably have noted, the sense 2a above is pretty much the etymologically literal sense of abstraction: The action of pulling/taking something away. The problem here is that we aren’t used to the literal, non-abstract, use of the word.

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