Droughts have been declared across swathes of England as the result of the driest summer in 50 years.
On Friday, the Environment Agency (EA) announced that drought trigger thresholds have been met in eight parts of England – across southwest, southern, eastern and central England.
As part of their announcement, officials warned that during the second official heatwave of the summer, some of the nation’s rivers are at their lowest level since records began.
Here Sky News takes a look at what droughts are, what measures are taken as a result and how to reduce our water consumption to help protect supplies.
What is a drought?
Droughts are defined as “natural events which occur when a period of low rainfall creates a shortage of water”. They can be widespread across the country or just cover a small area.
Before now, the last time there was a drought in England was in summer 2018. The most severe on record was in 1976, when water supplies were restricted, trees were destroyed by moisture stress and dried-out moor and heathlands set on fire.
The EA, which manages drought response in England, said the decision to impose drought status this week was based on “rainfall, river flows, groundwater levels, reservoir levels and the dryness of soils, as well as the impacts these conditions have on public water supply, abstractors (including farmers) and the environment”.
It added that soil moisture in some areas is “comparable to that seen at the end of the 1976 drought and that July was the driest recorded since 1935.
There are four stages of drought:
• Prolonged dry weather stage (yellow) – where the possible impacts include a heightened risk of environmental damage such as a risk to wildlife and plants
• Drought stage (amber) – stress on public and private water supply sources, reduced agricultural and horticultural crop yields, localised wildfires and long-term habitat and wildlife impacts
• Severe drought stage (red) – widespread long-term environmental damage, widespread wildfires, failure of crops or plants and shortage of fodder and drinking water for livestock, failure of public and private water supplies
• Recovering drought stage (amber) – which depends on the type and severity of the preceding drought
What will happen as a result?
The change in drought status for affected regions does not automatically trigger action, but means the EA can ask water companies and the government to do things to protect essential water supplies.
These include temporary use bans, more commonly known as hosepipe bans, which have already been introduced by several of England’s water companies.
EA officials have also applied to the government for a “drought order” to stop the Holme Styes reservoir in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire from running dry.
With 13 rivers running at their lowest levels on record, the reservoir has been identified as particularly at risk.
The drought order will ask Yorkshire Water to reduce the flow leaving the reservoir from two million litres a day to one million litres.
They say this will “allow the reservoir to support habitats and wildlife in the River Ribble over a longer period”, but insists that it is “not part of public water infrastructure” so will have “no impact on the public water supply”.
Overall, the EA has stressed that “essential supplies of water are safe”.
But a spokesperson said: “In drought affected areas the public and businesses should be very mindful of the pressures on water resources and should use water wisely.
“But while there is an important role for individuals to sustainably manage their usage, government expects water companies to act to reduce leakage and fix leaking pipes as quickly as possible and take wider action alongside government policy.”
What water restrictions have been announced?
A hosepipe ban has been in force since 5 August in parts of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Restrictions will be introduced by South East Water across Sussex and Kent from 12 August.
Welsh Water have announced a hosepipe ban from 8am on 19 August in Pembrokeshire.
Yorkshire Water is the first company in the north of England to introduce a ban, which will come in on 26 August for two weeks – affecting 5.4 million customers.
Thames Water, which has nine million customers and is the UK’s biggest water company, has said temporary restrictions may be required unless the public take steps to use water more efficiently.
It has warned that reservoir levels are below normal for this time of year, and supplies will continue to reduce in the months ahead unless London and the Thames Valley receive average or above average rainfall.
What you can and can’t do during a hosepipe ban
When a temporary use ban is in place, people must not use a hosepipe that is connected to the mains water supply.
This can include anything “adapted” to serve the same purpose as a hosepipe, according to South East Water.
This would rule out the use of garden sprinklers, irrigation systems and anything like pressure washers – along with using a hosepipe for any activities such as watering the garden.
However, there are some exemptions for certain people with “specific circumstances”.
A hosepipe can be used when it is needed for “unavoidable” health and safety reasons.
This could be to remove or minimise risk to human or animal health – or to prevent the spread of causative agents or disease.
A hosepipe might also be used to protect the general welfare of animals – including fish.
South East Water says it may still “question your use” of an exemption if it receives reports of hosepipe usage.
How much water is lost in leaks?
According to figures released by Discover Water, citing Water UK, about 3.1 billion litres of water were lost daily in leaks in England and Wales between April 2018 and March 2021.
The regulator, Ofwat, says some of these losses can be “inevitable, as pipes can wear out or be damaged by freezing weather or the weight of traffic on roads”.
But it expects companies to “find and repair leaks and to replace pipes that wear out”.
Ofwat has set performance targets for companies and is expecting them to “adopt innovative approaches”.
It is hoping that firms will reduce leakage by 16% by 2025.
The regulator adds: “Water companies have committed to delivering a 50% reduction in leakage from 2017-18 levels by 2050.”
Where does our water come from?
The water we drink out of the tap originally comes from either reservoirs, rivers, lakes and springs, or underground permeable rocks that bear water known as aquifers.
In England and Wales, around two-thirds of tap water comes from reservoirs, rivers and lakes (surface water) and the remaining third from aquifers.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, they use much more surface water – 97% and 94% respectively.
This is because there are more lakes and rivers there. Loch Ness, for example, contains more water than all the rivers and lakes in England and Wales combined.
Across England, the make-up of water supply differs from region to region, depending on how much surface water there is.
How does it get to our taps?
Seventeen water companies have signed up to the UK drought plan and are responsible for the majority of the water supply across England and Wales.
The way they collect, clean and process their water varies slightly depending on what sources they have.
But whether it comes from surface water or an aquifer, it will be pumped to a treatment plant before various chemicals and materials are added to make it clean enough to drink.
First, the chemical aluminium sulphate helps bind small bits of dirt in the water together to make them easier to remove later on.
Then sand and gravel are added to help remove the dirt, before ultraviolet light is used to neutralise any bacteria that could cause stomach bugs.
Chlorine is mixed in last to get rid of any remaining unwelcome substances.
Once it has been cleaned, water companies transfer it to their storage reservoirs, where it is tested regularly to make sure it is still safe, before being pumped to homes through a network of underground pipes.
Where do we use the most water at home?
The UK uses an estimated 16 billion litres of water every day across homes and businesses, according to the Energy Saving Trust.
Each person uses an average of around 150 litres a day.
At home, Britons use most of their water in the bathroom, with the shower (25%), toilet (22%) and taps (29%) taking up the majority of our consumption.
An average shower uses less water than a typically sized bath – 60 litres versus 80 litres.
And energy efficient shower heads and units can further decrease your water usage.
In the kitchen, washing machines use the most water (9%), followed by handwashed dishes (4%) and the dishwasher (1%).
Boiling the kettle with more water than you need is one of the most common ways Britons over-use water.
Filling up a dishwasher is more water efficient than washing dishes by hand.
For those without dishwashers, using a separate bowl for dirty suds and another for cleaning them off will waste less water than rinsing them with a running tap.
Washing machines take up a considerable chunk of kitchen water use (9%), but are more water efficient if used to capacity and at a lower temperature (30 degrees or lower).
Water-saving tips include swapping hoses for watering cans, taking shorter showers, and turning off the taps while brushing teeth.