A Very British Drought

Droughts aren't just about baked earth and dead grass
Droughts aren't just about baked earth and dead grass - not in Britain anyway

 What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word drought? For me it’s dry, desert landscapes, dying crops and animals. It’s a word I usually associate with far off, sunnier climates, with little or no rainfall, writes Sharon Russell-Verma, project manager for SaveWater South East.

However, the reality is that drought events are becoming more frequent in countries across the globe. And as populations increase and with it demand, water scarcity is likely to become more frequent. Recently, UN Water has estimated that over half the world's population will be affected by water scarcity by 2030. Hence, water availability is becoming a concern around the world.

But here in the UK we have nothing to worry about ...right ? After all we live in a country infamous for its rainfall. Unfortunately, it's not as simple as that - water scarcity occurs when demand outstrips supply and it can be both natural and human induced. Therefore, contrary to popular belief water scarcity can occur in countries with high rainfall including the UK. Additionally, here in the UK much of our rainfall occurs in the North of the country, whilst in the South, which has a much larger population and an increasing demand for water, average annual rainfall is lower. In fact the whole of the South East of England has been designated as being a ‘water stressed area’ by the Environment Agency.

Still, we don't actually have real droughts in the UK or do we? To some extent yes this is true, in times of drought when temporary use bans are in place (also known as hosepipe bans), we still have water flowing from our taps. So what exactly is a drought? A drought occurs when there is insufficient rainfall over a period of time (usually more than one season) that can result in water shortages and impacts the use of water for businesses, households or for the environment. So, whilst the UK may not suffer from the traditional images of drought (dry landscapes, parched rivers, dust and no water) it does suffer the impacts of prolonged to little rainfall over a period of time.

In the midst of a cold, grey, damp February day it’s hard to fathom that some areas in the south east may experience drought conditions later in the year, but cold and grey does not equal wet. All our water supplies come from rainfall and we simply have not had enough winter rainfall this year to meet the long term average. In fact we are now in the middle of a second dry winter. Historically, October to February is the time when rivers, reservoirs and aquifers (groundwater) are replenished. Despite the heavy rains in December, rainfall this winter has been well below average for this time of year. As a consequence groundwater levels remain low and river flows are below normal in parts of southern England. At the same time some reservoirs such as Bewl in the south are also below average (which has led to a drought permit application in January 2018). What’s more, we need at least average rainfall for the remainder of the winter and spring to help reduce the risk of water pressure in parts of the south east of England later in the year.

In a recent assessment the Met Office stated that winter 2016/2017 was a dry and mild winter, and it was well below average for the south east of England. To put this into perspective much of the South East region of England gets 600mm or less average rainfall per year compared to 3000mm in parts of Scotland. Moreover, a report published by Water UK last year which used new modelling techniques shows clearly that in the future we will face more frequent and severe droughts than previously estimated.

 All water companies must plan for the long term and this includes planning for drought events. Drought plans focus on the things that companies plan to do to maintain water supply and to protect the environment from their operations during a drought. In recent months water companies across the south east have been closely monitoring local rainfall, reservoirs and groundwater levels and putting in place interventions to help alleviate water shortages where possible. Interventions can include introducing restrictions as a precaution, so that water companies can make sure customers have enough water for drinking, cooking and washing. Moreover, there are simple things we can all do to use less water as we go about our daily lives.

    •       Have a shorter shower - 4 minutes is ideal

    •       Fix leaky taps and toilets

    •       Use the correct flush on toilets - big flush or little flush

    •       Hang up the hose  - use a bucket and sponge for car washing

    •       Always put full loads into washing machine and dishwashers

    •       Use rainwater from a water butt to irrigate gardens  

Keep checking back for more guest blogs from the SaveWater South East team.


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