Following a meeting of the National Drought Group, made up of water companies, ministers and other water authorities, the Environment Agency announced that the south, south-west and south-east of England, along with the central and eastern regions, are in drought. Parts of the capital London are also affected.
The UK has had five consecutive months of below-average rainfall and heatwaves, with temperatures expected to reach 37 Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts on Saturday. Only two months since the start of 2021 have seen below average rainfall.
Southern England received just 17% of its average rainfall in July, according to the UK Met Office.
“We are currently experiencing a second heat wave after a record dry July in parts of the country. Government and other stakeholders, including the Environment Agency, are already taking action to manage the effects,” said the country’s water minister, Steve Double. In a statement. “All the water companies have assured us that essential supplies are still secure and we have made it clear that it is their duty to maintain those supplies.”
While a lack of rain and heat is causing this drought, around 3.1 billion liters of water is lost every day in England and Wales through leaks in the nation’s aging infrastructure. Consumer groups and experts have called on water companies to do more to plug leaks.
The environment agency said in a statement that the government expects water companies to “take extensive action to reduce leakage and repair leaking pipes as soon as possible and in line with government policy”.
A drought declaration means water companies and governments must implement drought plans without getting permission from ministers. Companies are likely to impose more hosepipe bans, which are already in place for millions of people, forcing them to water gardens and wash cars without hoses and prevent them from filling paddling pools during the ongoing heat wave. Companies may draw more water from rivers and other sources to ensure supplies.
Friday’s announcement puts the declared region under an amber drought alert, meaning several indicators – including rainfall, river levels and flows, reservoir storage and groundwater levels – are very low.
Thirteen rivers monitored by the Environment Agency as indicators of wider conditions are at their lowest levels ever recorded, but soil moisture is comparable to the end of the 1975-76 drought, the country’s most severe. That drought was triggered by a combination of extreme heat and consecutive months of low rainfall.
Concerns about food security are increasing
The UK typically experiences drought conditions in some areas every five to 10 years. Drought conditions may continue till at least October, said the Center for Environment and Hydrology. The agency is looking ahead just a few months, and climate scientists have warned that if this coming winter is as dry as last, UK food security could be at risk.
Liz Bentley, CEO of the Royal Meteorological Society, said there were already concerns about the drought’s impact on food supply and affordability.
“Like the potato crop here depends on the rain, there are a lot of crops that are really struggling because of the lack of rain, they don’t usually take water from somewhere else to irrigate the fields. And some other crops also take water from the rivers, for example, to irrigate the fields, they’re really struggling at the moment,” Bentley told CNN.
“Even in the current conditions, yields are going to go down for a number of crops and the price of these things is going to go up, and obviously here in the UK because of the drought. But there are other things going on across Europe.”
Around 63% of land across the European Union and the UK is under drought warnings or warnings issued by the European Drought Monitor, meaning there is inadequate soil moisture. That’s an area almost the size of India, or the three largest US states — Alaska, Texas and California — combined. In 17% of the land, drought conditions are more severe, meaning vegetation is stressed.
Experts are warning that the drought could continue into the fall or winter, which will see the country collect most of its rain during the drier parts of the year. Another dry winter will put further pressure on food security.
“It’s going to continue into the fall and then really, we don’t know beyond that. It depends on whether we see any significant rain — a good steady rain that replenishes the water level,” Bentley said. “What we don’t want at the moment is heavy, thundery rain, because the ground is so dry, the water just runs off. It doesn’t soak into the ground.”