Is the UK heading for a drought and will there be a tire ban?

England and Wales experienced their driest start to the year since 1976 – when water rationing was introduced.

It has raised concerns that the UK could be heading for drought.

Why are there drought warnings in 2022?

The National Drought Panel moved England to Prolonged Dry status – the stage before drought – at an emergency meeting.

In the first three months of the year, rainfall in England fell by 26% and in Wales by 22%.

This meant, even before summer began, average river flows were “below normal” or “extremely low”.

Chart showing the ten hottest days in the UK since 1900

Chart showing the ten hottest days in the UK since 1900

In July, temperature records were broken several times and rainfall decreased by 76%. The Meteorological Service predicts further periods of dry and hot weather.

These conditions have been exacerbated by overconsumption of water. More than 28% of underground water sources are overused, the government says.

What is drought?

The Environment Agency, which is coordinating the national response with water companies, is declaring a drought.

Many people define a drought as a prolonged time without water.

But the Royal Meteorological Society says it’s not always that simple. For example, there may be agricultural droughts where there is not enough water to grow a crop.

Could there be a pipeline ban?

Individual water companies are allowed to prohibit the use of pipes to reduce water demand.

These can be announced in response to depleting river levels.

Southern Water is introducing the pipe ban on August 5, for customers in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

So far, no other companies have announced a hose ban – but customers in the south of England and the Midlands are being encouraged to use less water.

The BBC understands some companies are reconsidering their advice following the National Drought Group’s announcement.

What are the effects of drought?

The effects of drought can include:

The National Agricultural Union is closely monitoring the situation. Berry farmers have already reported losing part of their crop.

Vegetables such as potatoes – due to be harvested next month – are at particular risk due to their high water content.

The effects could be felt next year as farmers delay planting crops such as canola because the soil is too dry.

Recent record-breaking temperatures and very dry conditions have led to multiple wildfires, with significant damage to homes and pastures.

The Environment Agency oversees the management of UK aquatic life and will move fish to other rivers if water levels drop too low – as it did in Yorkshire in July.

Outside the UK, places such as northern Italy and Portugal declared drought emergencies earlier in the summer and put water restrictions in place.

France, Spain and Portugal have also experienced significant fires due to dry conditions.

Graphic showing four ways to save water at home

Graphic showing four ways to save water at home

What happened to the droughts of 1976 and 2018?

In 1976 and 2018 the UK experienced severe droughts lasting months.

They were caused by a prolonged period of dry weather during the spring, followed by an unusually hot summer.

In 1976, the Drought Act created emergency powers to shut off domestic and industrial water supplies.

In 2018, widespread drought led to crop failures, which pushed up food prices. Multiple water restrictions were put in place.

Similar conditions prevailed this year, with low rainfall and above average temperatures in July.

Conditions in August will be a major factor in whether the UK enters drought again.

Could we see more droughts in the future?

The National Infrastructure Commission – which advises the government – recently said there could be more water shortages in the future due to population growth and climate change.

He called for changes in water consumption and a reduction in water losses.

In the UK, up to three billion liters of water is lost every day – enough to support 20 million people.

The government’s 25-year Environment Plan aims to tackle these issues by investing in existing infrastructure and improving efficiency in homes and businesses.

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