The UK government officially declared a drought in parts of England on Friday after months of record low rainfall and unprecedented high temperatures in recent weeks.
At a meeting of the National Drought Group, the government’s environment agency said the “drought trigger threshold has been reached” in parts of south-west, south, central and east England.
The drought was last officially declared in England in 2018.
The agency has released a report noting that England had its driest July since 1935.
The Met Office, the United Kingdom’s meteorological authority, said the period from January to June this year saw the least rainfall in England and Wales since 1976.
Drastic measures such as roadside standpipes and water rationing were used that summer.
This year’s exceptional weather comes as France is also experiencing a record drought and is grappling with huge wildfires.
The UK government said the transition to drought status is based on factors such as rainfall, river courses and groundwater levels and reservoirs and their impact on public water supplies.
“We are urging everyone to control the amount of water they are using during this exceptionally dry period,” Harvey Bradshaw, chairman of the National Drought Group, said in a statement.
The Environment Agency and water companies “will step up their actions to address the impacts” and move forward with their published drought plans, including measures like hose line bans.
It stressed that “essential water supplies are secure”.
– ‘Extreme Heat’ –
England and parts of Wales have been severely parched and three water companies – Welsh Water, Southern Water and South East Water – have all imposed tubing bans, while several others will follow.
Every month of the year except February was drier than average, according to the Met Office.
Satellite images released by NASA in July showed parched brown areas stretching across most of southern England and the north-east coast.
The source of the Thames has dried up and now begins at a point several miles downstream.
The meetings of the National Drought Group are convened by the Environment Agency, which monitors water levels in rivers and groundwater.
The group consists of high-level decision-makers from government and water companies, as well as other affected groups such as farmers.
Water Secretary Steve Double said the government had “made it clear” to water companies that “it is their duty” to maintain basic services.
“We are better prepared than ever for droughts, but we will continue to monitor the situation closely, including the impact on farmers and the environment,” he added.
– “Leaks” –
But critics have lashed out at the billions of liters lost every day by the private water companies, whose top management are paid millions of pounds a year and who regularly pay dividends to shareholders.
“They should really put their fingers into action,” said Claire Connarty, 61, while visiting a nursery in Kent, south east London – where a hosepipe ban came into force on Friday.
“They have leaks everywhere, but then they tell us to cut back on our water use.”
Fellow buyer Barry Martin, 62, was more sympathetic, noting that leaks are inevitable and that he tries to limit his own waste – including by keeping buckets in his shower to catch excess water.
“I’m trying not to waste anything,” the retiree told AFP, adding that being hooked to a water meter helps keep his bills down and conserves an increasingly precious resource.
The Met Office on Tuesday issued an amber warning of “extreme heat” in parts of England and Wales from Thursday to Sunday, forecasting possible impacts on health, transport and infrastructure.
Temperatures were expected to peak in the mid-30s Celsius on Friday and over the weekend, after which some showers and thunderstorms were forecast.
Temperatures were not expected to match July’s record highs, when a temperature of 40.3 degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit) was recorded on July 20 during an unprecedented heatwave in Lincolnshire, north-east England.
The National Climate Information Center said such high temperatures in the UK were only possible because of human-caused climate change.
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