UK drought crisis – a wake up call to protect our precious water resources

The UK’s rainfall has been below average for most of the past 18 months, and July was the driest on record across England since 1935. More than 35 million people in the UK are now living in an official drought zone as we face the biggest water shortage since 1976.

Drought occurs when evaporation and transpiration exceed precipitation of rain. When prolonged it causes damage to agriculture, depletion of ground and soil water, and limits water available for drinking, sanitation and industry in the area concerned. Streams and lakes dry up, and water-tables fall. There are different definitions of drought for different purposes.

Meteorological droughts (defined as a period of at least 15 consecutive days when there is less than 0.2 mm of rainfall) are a relatively common feature of the weather in the UK. Analysis of daily rainfall records at Oxford from 1853-2002 found 203 occurrences. 

Agricultural droughts happen where over a longer period of time the rainfall is not sufficient for the normal growth of crops. However, this can be avoided by irrigating crop land and in many countries which have a notable dry season, this is common practice.  

Hydrological droughts occur when conditions of below average rainfall persist to the extent that there is concern over the available water resource to supply drinking water to the public, water for industry, or irrigation for crops, and that there will be damage to aquatic ecosystems. It is a hydrological drought which is now impacting parts of the UK.

While there has been some heavy rainfall over the past few weeks, it has not been a sufficient amount to compensate for the long dry period in recent months and refill our rivers and aquifers.

Many UK rivers showing lowest flows on records

Below-average rainfall and above-average temperatures has caused river flows, groundwater levels and reservoir stocks to drastically decrease.

Six water companies – Southern Water, South East Water, Thames Water, Yorkshire Water, South West Water and Welsh Water – have already announced hosepipe bans, as part of efforts to tackle the drought. However, water firms have been criticised for high rates of water leaking from the network, profits, and for sewage pouring into rivers and the sea in the recent heavy rainfall.

Many areas moved into drought status have experienced low river flows which places incredible strain on local wildlife. The National Drought Group said there had already been “significant environmental impacts, with rivers and ponds drying out and fish and other wildlife dying or in distress”.

Impact on food security

The dry conditions mean that the country’s farmers are expecting food production losses of between 10-50 per cent for crops including carrots, onions, sugar beet, apples and hops. There simply has not been enough water to grow them. Some agricultural farmers have had to raid their winter food stock because the grass has been too scorched for cows to graze.

This has been the driest start to a year since 1976 when the impacts on farming caused food prices to rise by 12 per cent.

The UK situation mirrors that of Europe, where river flows are down by a third on average due to what may be the worst drought in 500 years. Nearly half of the EU remains under drought warning conditions, with hotter and drier weather forecast until November due to climate change.

The UK’s official drought could last until spring 2023 if we experience a second consecutive dry autumn and winter this year. Above average rainfall for months are needed to replenish our depleted reservoir levels and return water levels to normal.

The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology have said that parts of southern England need to see the amount of rainfall that may be expected once every 50 years in August and September to overcome the tinder-dry conditions.

The drought of 1976 (where 23rd June to 7th July saw an exceptional heatwave with the hottest summer since records began), was followed by an exceptionally wet autumn, with some parts of the south recording over 200% of their normal rainfall. Heavy storms and torrential rain continued on many days through to October, which saw one of the worst droughts on record finally come to an end.

Water-saving tips for you to do at home

Here are some climate friendly tips on how to save one of the most precious resources on Earth;

  • Use leftover pasta water to water your plants – it’s high in mineral content and helps your plants grow faster (be sure it is only lightly salted so you don’t dehydrate your plants’ soil)
  • Turn off the tap when you clean your teeth – A running tap uses up to nine litres of water a minute
  • Wash your clothes in cold water (it doesn’t have to be hot to get the job done)
  • Take a shower instead of a bath – A five-minute shower uses about 40 litres of water (that’s about half the volume of a standard bath)
  • Collect running water from your shower while you wait for it to get hot – Over 10% of the water drawn from showering is wasted waiting for hot water to arrive. Collect this excess water in a bucket and use it for watering plants, washing the car, flushing the toilet, or filling the dog’s water bowl