The Environment Agency said drought was affecting England’s south, south-west, south-east, central and east regions after convening the National Drought Group, made up of water companies, ministers and other water authorities. Parts of the capital London are also affected.
The UK has had five consecutive months of below-average rainfall and back-to-back heat waves, with temperatures expected to reach 37 degrees Celsius (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit) in some parts on Saturday. Only two months since the beginning of 2021 there has been at least average rainfall.
Southern England received just 17% of its average rainfall in July, according to the UK Met Bureau.
“We are currently experiencing a second heat wave after the driest July on record for parts of the country. The government and other partners, including the Environment Agency, are already taking action to manage the impact,” the country’s water minister, Steve Double, said in a statement. “All water companies have assured us that basic services are still secure and we have made it clear that it is their duty to maintain those services.”
As lack of rain and heat fuels this drought, around 3.1 billion liters of water are lost in England and Wales each day through leaks in the countries’ aging infrastructure. Consumer groups and experts have urged water utilities to do more to stop leaks.
The Environment Agency said in its statement that the government expects water companies to “reduce spills and repair leaking pipes as soon as possible and take broader measures alongside government policy”.
Several rivers across England have partially dried up, including the Thames, which flows through London. Officials have been restoring oxygen to rivers and rescuing fish where levels are low. The water levels in reservoirs are also falling rapidly.
The drought declaration means that water companies and governments should implement drought plans without asking ministers for permission. Businesses are likely to impose more hose bans already in place for millions of people, forcing them to water gardens and wash cars without hoses and refrain from filling paddling pools in the ongoing heatwave. Businesses could also take more water from rivers and other sources to ensure supplies.
Friday’s announcement places the declared area under a yellow drought alert, meaning several indicators — including precipitation, river levels and flows, reservoirs and water tables — are very low.
Thirteen rivers that the Environmental Protection Agency monitors as indicators of general conditions are at their lowest on record, while soil moisture is comparable to the end of the 1975-76 drought, one of the country’s worst. This drought was also triggered by a combination of extreme heat and consecutive months of low rainfall.
The yellow alert is one notch below the more severe red alert and means there is likely to be stress on water supply sources, reduced agricultural and crop yields, localized wildfires and impacts on wildlife and their habitats, according to an earlier Environment Agency report. The London Fire Brigade also this week warned of “dry” conditions and an “extraordinary risk of fire” across the capital as temperatures are expected to hit 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit) on Saturday and as grass – from lawns to public parks and Heiden – is bone dry and brown without the usual rainfall. Parts of the capital, including homes and parks, were engulfed in fires on July 19 during a record-breaking heatwave.
Concerns about food security are growing
In the UK, some areas typically experience drought conditions every five to ten years. The Center for Ecology and Hydrology said drought conditions could last until at least October. The agency is looking just a few months into the future, and climate scientists have warned that the UK’s food security could be at risk if the coming winter were also to be dry like last winter.
Liz Bentley, CEO of the Royal Meteorological Society, said there were already concerns about the drought’s impact on food supplies and affordability.
“There are a number of crops that are really struggling due to lack of rain, like the potato crop here relies on rain, they don’t usually take water anywhere else to irrigate the fields. And even some of the other crops that are doing this, like taking water from rivers to irrigate fields, they’re really struggling right now,” Bentley told CNN.
“Even in the current conditions yields for a number of crops will fall and the price of these things will rise and that is obviously due to the drought here in the UK. But there are other things going on across Europe.”
Around 63% of land in the European Union and UK is affected by drought warnings or European Drought Monitor alerts, meaning the soil is not sufficiently wet. That’s an area almost the size of India or the three largest US states of Alaska, Texas and California combined. Drought conditions are more severe in 17% of the country, meaning vegetation is stressed.
Experts warn the drought could last into fall or even winter, when the nation normally saves most of its rain for drier parts of the year. Another dry winter would put even more strain on food security.
“It will continue into the autumn and beyond that we really don’t know. It depends on whether we see significant rainfall — good, steady rainfall that replenishes the water table,” Bentley said. “What we don’t want at the moment are heavy downpours because the ground is so dry that the water just rolls off. It doesn’t seep into the ground.”