The Environment Agency has announced drought conditions in the south, south-west and south-east, central and east of England after bringing together the National Drought Group, made up of water companies, ministers and other water authorities. Some parts of the capital London were also affected.
The UK has seen five straight months of below-average rainfall and back-to-back heat waves, with temperatures expected to hit 37 Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in some places on Saturday. Since the beginning of 2021, only two months have seen at least average precipitation.
Southern England received just 17% of average rainfall in July, according to the UK Met Office.
“We are currently experiencing the second heatwave in some parts of the country after the driest July on record. Actions are already being taken, including by the government and the Environmental Protection Agency, to manage the impacts,” said Steve Double, the country’s Water Minister. in the statement. “All the water companies have assured us that essential supplies are still safe and we have made it clear that it is their responsibility to maintain these supplies.”
While a lack of rain and heat has contributed to this drought, around 3.1 billion liters of water is lost every day in England and Wales through leaks in the country’s aging infrastructure. Consumer groups and experts have called on water companies to do more to prevent leaks.
The Environment Agency said in a statement that the government expects water companies to “reduce leaks and repair leaking pipes as soon as possible and take wider action in line with government policy”.
A drought declaration means that water companies and governments must implement drought plans without getting permission from ministers. Companies are likely to impose more hose bans, which already exist for millions of people, forcing them to water gardens and wash cars without hoses and avoid filling paddling pools in the ongoing heat wave. Companies can draw more water from rivers and other sources to ensure supply.
Friday’s announcement puts the area under an amber drought warning, meaning several indicators are very low, including rainfall, river levels and flows, reservoir storage and groundwater levels.
Thirteen rivers monitored by the Environment Agency as indicators of wider conditions are at their lowest levels ever recorded, while soil moisture is comparable to the end of the 1975-76 drought, one of the country’s worst droughts. This drought was also caused by extreme heat and low rainfall for consecutive months.
Concerns about food safety are growing
The UK typically experiences drought conditions in some areas every 5-10 years. The Center for Ecology and Hydrology said the drought could last at least until October. The agency is only looking ahead a few months, and climate scientists have warned that if next winter is as dry as last, Britain’s food security could be at risk.
Liz Bentley, director general of the Royal Meteorological Society, said there were already concerns about the impact of the drought on food supplies and low prices.
“There are a number of crops that are really struggling either because of the lack of rain, for example the potato crop here is rain-dependent, they don’t usually take water from somewhere else to irrigate the fields. Even some other crops are like that. For example, you take water from rivers to irrigate the fields, they they’re really struggling right now,” Bentley told CNN.
“Even in the current environment, yields will go down for a number of crops and the price of those things will go up, and obviously that’s because of the drought in the UK. But there are other things going on in Europe.”
Around 63% of the area in the European Union and the UK is under a drought warning or warning issued by the European Drought Monitor, meaning there is insufficient soil moisture. This is almost equal to the area of India or the three largest states of the United States – Alaska, Texas and California combined. Drought conditions are more severe on 17% of the land, meaning vegetation is stressed.
Experts warn that the drought could last into autumn and even winter, which is when the country usually receives most of the rain to sustain the drier parts of the year. Another dry winter will put more stress on food security.
“It’s going to continue into the fall and then we really don’t know what’s next. It depends on whether or not we get any significant rain — good sustained rain that raises the water level,” Bentley said. “What we don’t want right now is a heavy, thundery downpour because the ground is so dry that the water just runs off. It doesn’t soak into the ground.”