Why are large parts of England now in drought?

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A person walks a dry bank of a tributary to the Dowry Reservoir close to OldhamImage source, PA Media

Large parts of southern, central and eastern England have been declared drought areas.

The announcement was made by the National Drought Group, which said it was responding to the driest summer in 50 years.

It says "essential supplies of water are safe", but water companies in the affected areas could now introduce further restrictions on water use.

Where the drought zones?

The Environment Agency (EA) says eight areas are now in drought:

  • Devon and Cornwall
  • Solent and South Downs
  • Kent and South London
  • Herts and North London
  • East Anglia
  • Thames
  • Lincolnshire
  • Northamptonshire and East Midlands

It says that the West Midlands and Yorkshire are likely to be declared drought areas in the near future.

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 simply 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 EA, which coordinates the response with water companies.

It says the drought announcement was based on data including rainfall, river flows, groundwater levels, reservoir levels, and the dryness of soils, as how that is affecting the public water supply, commercial water users such as farmers, and the environment.

The EA's latest water situation report shows some river levels are at the lowest levels ever recorded.

Why are there droughts in Britain this year?

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".

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 when a drought is declared?

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

The EA says this does not automatically trigger water restrictions, but means it and the water companies will put into effect pre-arranged drought plans.

Some things that water companies might do 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 and cut non-essential use of water

The EA is also urging water companies to act to reduce leakage from pipes as quickly as possible.

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?

  • killing fish and creating water pollution
  • crop failure
  • wildfires

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.

Image source, REUTERS/Darren Staples
Image caption,
The price of barley and wheat increased four fold during the 2018 heatwave as crops failed

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

Assistant Commissioner Jonathan Smith of the London Fire Brigade said: "Last year, in the first week of August, we attended 42 grassland fires in London. This year, for the first week in August, we've attended 340. 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.

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.

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.

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