Drought summit as rivers in England dry up

Caroline Spelman chairing the summit Caroline Spelman, who chaired the summit, says people should start saving water now

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Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman has hosted a drought summit as parts of England struggle with groundwater levels lower than in 1976.

She invited water companies, farmers and wildlife groups to discuss the situation in south-east England, East Anglia and the East Midlands.

Ms Spelman said beforehand the meeting was to work out "preventative measures" that could be taken now.

Anglian Water said some reservoir levels are 20% lower then normal.

Anglian spokesman Kieran Nelson said: "This year the recharge period started later, it's taking longer and it's going much more slowly. And that is a concern not just for reservoirs like this one but for the boreholes that we rely on as well.

"But we need months of torrential rain, to be quite honest. It might not be a popular thing to say but lots and lots of drizzle persistently over weeks is what we're going to need to get things back to normal."

North-south drought divide

Piping water from wet north to dry south has seemed like a good idea to a long line of people.

It was last considered seriously by the Environment Agency in 2006. The title of its report posed the question: "Do we need large-scale water transfers for south-east England?"

And the text gave the answer - no.

The most radical scheme would see five parallel pipes constructed, each 1.6m in diameter, bringing water from the northern Pennines to London.

But it would cost between five and eight times more than developing extra infrastructure in the south-east, they concluded.

Mrs Spelman told BBC Radio 4's Today programme many parts of the country had suffered their second dry winter and the likelihood of a hosepipe ban was greater this time around.

She said water companies had managed to reduce leakage by 36% since the 1990s, but there was still a danger of a water shortage.

One visible sign of an impending drought is the River Kennet in Wiltshire, which has dried up completely west of Marlborough.

Angling Trust chief executive Mark Lloyd said: "It's a pile of stones you can walk across in ordinary shoes."

Many rivers in south-east England have also dried up.

The regional chairman of the National Farmers' Union, Andrew Brown, said: "We've had a bit of snow but it takes 12 inches of snow to make an inch of rain.

"People are already starting to alter their cropping procedure. I was talking to a farmer at the end of last week who said he was going to plant 20% fewer root and vegetable crops. Now that means for him a £50,000 hit. So it's a big big concern."

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) called the summit to discuss what measures are being implemented to tackle drought and to decide what actions need to be taken to mitigate against its impact in the future.

Andrew Brown of the National Farmers Union on how the drought will hit crops

Last year the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, suggested in his column in the Daily Telegraph that canals and aqueducts be built to carry water from the north of England, which tends to be wetter.

He was the latest in a series of politicians and policy-makers who have suggested similar schemes.

Scotland has had its wettest winter for a century but Mrs Spelman told Today: "People often say 'well why don't you just build a pipeline from the North West to the South East?'. But it isn't that simple because water is heavy and costly to transport."

"But one of the things we will talk about at the summit today is improved connectivity between water companies as part of improving our resilience in the face of these conditions."

The wildlife charity WWF has accused the government of dragging its heels.

WWF's freshwater spokesperson, Rose Timlett, said: "This is a drought we've seen coming. Rivers ...have been dry since September 2011.

BBC forecaster Sarah Keith-Lucas on whether the dry conditions are likely to persist

"Back then everyone agreed we would be in a serious drought situation if we had another dry winter, but not much has been done about it."

She said the government's White Paper, which was published in December, had some good ideas, such as licences to remove water, but these proposals might not be implemented for years.

The WWF supports water metering and other measures to cut water wastage.

But Mrs Spelman told Today: "Water meters can be helpful, particularly for households with a small number of occupants or a reduced income.

"But the most important is to save water. Everybody knows how to save water."

Water company figures show that London and the Thames Valley have received below-average rainfall for 18 of the last 23 months.

The amount of water in the River Lee, which runs through Hertfordshire and north east London, is only 24% of its usual level while the Kennet is only 31% of its average level.

Southern Water has applied for a drought permit to enable it to restock Bewl Water reservoir in Kent, which is only 41% full.

If the Environment Agency grants the permit it would also allow the company to take more water from the River Medway.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I do agree with cutting wastage but have you considered there is simply too many people using the limited amount of resources? It'll also certainly help if some people become less selfish and distribute their excess resources.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    It was a huge mistake to privatise the water utilities!
    In the drive for profits there has been a sharp drop in quality and investment for the future.
    These companies should be nationalised and any profit should be put back into the system. It's morally wrong to try and make a profit by selling water as it's something we can't do without.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    @ 72.Rob....we pay good money to big companies to supply us. These companies have the stats. it is for them to make it happen, its what we pay for!

    I completely agree Rob, I'm just fed up of all the comments that blame everything & anything on the Tory's, Lib Dems, or the bankers. Not everything can be laid at their door.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    "water is heavy and costly to transport"
    The mind boggles. Was this statement inspired by a mental image of how many barges you would need to pump the water onto, how many horses would be needed to tow all the water, how long it would take for the barges to make the North-South transit and how expensive it would be to return all the empty barges?

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    The privatisation of water companies and regionalisation of strategic planning are behind the current problem. I just hope that the politicians of today take a 30-50 year perspective on this rather than short term gain. What worries me more, is that localism will devolve strategic planning even lower down the government food chain at the expense of much needed national infrastructure planning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    This is the effect of privatisation, profits before anything, running a company at the lowest cost for the maximum amount of profit for the share holders.
    Over population in areas where it is difficult to stock and supply and waste.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    Oh tomfer, I sincerely hope Scotland gets total independance - pleeeaasse! We take more from you than you do from us? Hardly! And what a selfish attitude - you would not share water with another? Would you like to pay for your own health service, education, transport costs, and everything else we dont help you with? You get it free, we pay for ours, and yours too. Please go independent!

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    its inevitable because it is privatised, you cut corners to make money for your shareholders and big bonuses for your executives,(and its owned by another country) you could not make it up , we have the most stupid governments on the planet, all our utilities are owned by foreign companys, we all know how much we are loved ! take back our electric water and gas , stop making money on essentials

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    The time has come to make people pay for the water they actually use, like the other utilities. But we also need to make other changes to the system if we really want to conserve this precious resource. Why do we need to flush our loos with drinking water? Why are things like power showers and high-pressure washers allowed to be sold?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Here in Norfolk, parts of which have a high risk of drought, we are told thousands of new houses are needed, and that no more water can be extracted from the rivers. This begs the question where will the water needed for said houses come from? Perhaps serious consideration needs to be given to building houses were the water supply is plentiful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    It's interesting that global warming wasn't once mentioned in this article. If infrastructure is entirely to blame can it really be called a drought?

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Stop being so damned selfish and try and think of others for a change before trying to promote your own narrow minded political views.

    That would be a fine sentiment if we all went down to the river every day to get our water, but we don't, we pay good money to big companies to supply us. These companies have the stats. it is for them to make it happen, its what we pay for!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Water should never have been privatised, it’s not as if any of us can change suppliers. I would probably be better off with a water metre but won’t have one installed on principle. Re-nationalising would be a good idea, but this is never going to happen. It’s not about water shortages, it’s about water companies not investing in their infrastructure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    The former emergency (time of shortage) reservoir close to where I live is now a mock-Tudor housing estate. A big part of water privatisation was the sale of former water board land.

    Thank god the Victorians built things to last; unfortunately even they never forecast that the water mains would still be in use 100+ years later.

    More evidence of the short-sightedness of the markets?

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    1. Put everybody on a water meter.

    2. Charge the water companies for the difference between what they take out of the water supply and the metered usage (they pay for leakage).

    While this won’t cure the( temporary) drought it will dramatically reduce waste and overuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    No 60- Quite right tomfer. Any suggestion that england wants Scotland's water they should pay for it - that would balance up the costs we pay to get our electricity on the grid which subsidises english electric companies.

    Bunch of feckless southern subsidy junkies !

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Many Water Companies have sold reservoirs for housing developments. This really is their problem as it reflects short-termism and a lack of investment.

    The public should not be forced to pay higher prices or contribute to investment as this is all part of running a company. The Water Companies need to fulfill their obligations to us all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Perhaps the money from HST2 would be better spent in rebuilding our canel infrastructure to move water from the North to the South!

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    When I installed a water meter (first in Yorkshire, then again when I moved to Wales) my bill fell dramatically - by about 40%. Your bill will only go up if you're wasteful. Some basic tips:
    1. If you've got a garden, get some water butts and collect your rainwater.

    2. Don't try to keep your lawn a deep emerald green colour.

    3. Don't try to keep your car beautifully shiny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Too many people, too many new houses, too many leaks. Fix the leaks, manage the population down to a more sustainable level.


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