Why is a drought going to be declared in the UK?

Why is a drought going to be declared in the UK?

A person walks a dry bank of a tributary to the Dowry Reservoir close to Oldham

A person walks a dry bank of a tributary to the Dowry Reservoir close to Oldham

A drought is expected to be declared in large parts of England by the National Drought Group.

It would mean water companies could introduce stricter measures to conserve supplies.

What is a drought?

A drought relates to a lack of water, but there are different types of drought.

The Royal Meteorological Society says a drought is not just a lack of water for a specific time. For example, there can be agricultural droughts where there is not enough water to grow a crop.

The decision on whether to declare a drought in England is taken by the Environment Agency, which coordinates the response with water companies.

The agency doesn’t use a single definition of a drought – it takes into account factors like the impact on people and how long it is expected to last.

Why has 2022 seen drought warnings?

In the first three months of the year, England’s rainfall was down 26% and in Wales it was down 22%.

This meant that even before the summer started, that average river flows were “below normal” or “exceptionally low”.

Chart plotting the top ten hottest UK days on record since 1900

Chart plotting the top ten hottest UK days on record since 1900

July saw temperature records broken multiple times and rainfall was down 76%.

These conditions have been made worse by the overconsumption of water. More than 28% of underground water sources are overused, the government says.

What happens if a drought is declared?

Drought is declared area by area, rather than for the country as a whole.

Water companies and the government have plans for what to do depending on which company provides water in the region and where it comes from.

Some things that water companies might do if drought is declared include:

  • Take more water than usual from rivers, with permission from the government

  • A desalination plant could be used in London. It would take water from the River Thames and remove salt to make it drinkable.

  • Introduce hosepipe bans

Where are hosepipe bans being imposed?

Southern Water introduced a hosepipe ban on 5 August for customers in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

South East Water’s ban on hosepipes and sprinklers came into force on 12 August across Kent and Sussex. Rule-breakers could be hit with a £1,000 fine.

Welsh Water has announced a hosepipe ban to into force on 19 August, covering Pembrokeshire and a small part of Carmarthen.

Thames Water, which has 15 million customers, says it will impose a ban “in the coming weeks“.

Yorkshire Water is the latest company to announce a ban. It will come into force on 26 August.

What damage do droughts cause?

The effects of drought can include:

The National Farmers’ Union is watching the situation closely. Berry farmers have already reported losing some of their crop.

Vegetables such as potatoes – which are due to be harvested next month – are at particular risk due to their high-water content.

The effects could be felt into next year, as farmers are delaying planting crops such as rapeseed because the soil is too dry.

There have also been multiple fires, with significant damage to homes and grasslands.

Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith of the London Fire Brigade said: “Last August, in the first week of August, we attended 42 grassland fires in London. This year, for the first week in August, we’ve attended 342. So, an eightfold increase.”

The Met Office is warning there is an “exceptional” risk of fires spreading over the weekend. Some supermarkets are removing disposable barbecues from shelves.

The Environment Agency oversees the management of the UK’s aquatic life, and is moving fish from the River Mole in Surrey to deeper and cooler pools because rivers levels have dropped so low. It also did so in Yorkshire in July.

Outside of the UK, places such as northern Italy and Portugal declared drought emergencies earlier in the summer and put water restrictions in place.

France, Spain and Portugal have also faced significant wildfires due to the dry conditions.

Graphic showing four ways to save water at home

Graphic showing four ways to save water at home

What happened in the 1976 and 2018 droughts?

In 1976 and 2018 the UK experienced severe droughts lasting months.

They were caused by a prolonged period of dry weather through the spring and then an unusually warm summer.

In 1976, the Drought Act created emergency powers to turn off domestic and industrial water supplies.

In 2018, the widespread drought led to crop failures, which raised food prices. Multiple water restrictions were put in place.

This year has seen similar conditions, with low rainfall and above average temperatures in July.

The conditions in August will be an important factor in whether the UK enters drought again.

Could we see more droughts in the future?

The National Infrastructure Commission – which provides advice to the government – recently said there could be more water shortages in the future, because of population growth and climate change.

It called for changes to water consumption and reductions in water losses.

In the UK, up to three billion litres of water are lost each day.

The government’s 25-year Environment Plan aims to tackle these issues by investing in existing infrastructure and improving efficiency in homes and businesses.

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