Although more than 70 per cent of the Earth's surface is covered with water, water scarcity is a major problem

Water companies prepare ‘drought plans’ to protect essential supplies

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The UK's record-breaking heatwave has prompted water companies to impose hosepipe bans while environmentalists have given warnings about the impact of the heat on agriculture, rivers and wildlife.

Water companies have been urged to protect supplies in light of the dry autumn that is expected to follow one of the hottest summers in UK history. 

The predictions for high autumn temperatures come as the driest first seven months of the year in decades and hot spells have left parts of the UK facing looming drought. The situation has prompted Environment Secretary George Eustice to meet with chief executives of water companies, to discuss the resilience of the country's water supplies.  

“Each company has a pre-agreed drought plan which they are following, and I have urged them to take any precautionary steps needed to protect essential supplies as we go into a likely very dry autumn,” he said.

In order to prepare for an autumn of water scarcity, many water companies – including South East, Southern and Welsh Water – have already announced hosepipe bans for customers in areas they supply.

The latest of these has been Thames Water, which supplies water to 15 million customers across London and the Thames Valley. Recently, the company had to deliver bottled water to residents in the village of Northend in Oxfordshire and pump water into the network, after supplies were disrupted due to what it said was a technical issue at Stokenchurch Reservoir in the county.

The firm later said it had managed to “improve the situation” and all customers in the nearby area should now have water, but it warned pressure could be lower than normal.

These measures have drawn criticism from environmentalists, due to the lack of preparation for the year-on-year temperature increases and the widespread water leakages in many of the pipes across the country, which are said to be worsening an already critical situation by wasting billions of litres of water every day. 

The Angling Trust has called for water companies to “stop dragging their feet” and implement hosepipe bans in all affected areas, as well as fix leaks and build more water reservoirs. 

“Our rivers are drying up, fish and other wildlife are dying and not just [in] small streams," said Martin Salter, chief policy adviser to the Angling Trust. "Big rivers, like the Thames, are suffering and [it] has now dried up along a five-mile length from its source for the first time ever.

“And yet right now millions of gallons of scarce water is being wasted keeping golf courses and lawns green rather than helping rivers survive and our wildlife and economy protected.”

The charity also called for the government to declare a drought, and recognise the impact that the drying up of rivers has on wildlife. Salter added that water policy in the UK “has been a complacent shambles for decades” and the country should have planned for population growth and climate change a generation ago.

In July, the Environment Agency’s annual assessment concluded that the top executives of England’s water companies should "face jail time" after finding an increase in polluting activities from most of England’s water and sewerage companies during 2021, with performance on pollution falling to its lowest level since 2013. 

The UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (UKCEH) has warned that low or even exceptionally low river flows and groundwater levels are likely to continue for the next three months in southern England and Wales as a result of climate change

The situation could only be overcome with over three inches (8cm) of extra rain (in addition to what would normally be expected), UKCEH has said. However, the latest forecasts show no immediate sign of rain. 

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