Drought alert: the 2005 water crisis

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There should be water, lots of it; but baked, cracked clay is all there is. The picture on our front page shows how critical the water supply has become after the driest winter and spring in south-east England in nearly 30 years.

It looks like somewhere in Africa but it is actually the bed of Weir Wood reservoir near East Grinstead in Sussex, which is the main supply for 25,000 homes - about 60,000 people - in the town of Crawley. Southern Water said it was down to 40 per cent of its normal capacity.

The company, which supplies more than two million customers across the South-east, announced sprinkler and hosepipe bans in parts of its operating area six weeks ago, to cope with one of the worst droughts in the region on record. It fears there may have to be even more cutbacks as the summer continues. Five of the eight water companies in southern England have imposed restrictions, and the others may follow.

The drought has been severe. In the eight months from November until the end of June, the counties of Surrey and Sussex had only 58 per cent of their average rainfall for the period; it was their driest winter and spring since 1975-76, and the third driest in nearly 100 years.

The South-east as a whole, including London, is not far behind, and yesterday Thames Water, Britain's biggest water company which supplies the capital and more than 10 million people in total, said restrictions might have to be imposed next month if the situation did not improve.

Three weeks ago, Londoners were given an early warning of possible trouble ahead when the capital's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, asked them to refrain from always flushing the lavatory.

Lavatories should not be flushed when merely "taking a pee", Mr Livingstone said, adding that the measure would be a matter of personal choice, although he had changed his own behaviour, and he appealed for London residents to follow suit.

South-east England is at the fringe of the drought that is affecting parts of western Europe, in particular France and Spain. The western regions of France, in particular, have been very hard hit and cereal farmers fear for their harvest, especially those growing crops which need substantial irrigation, such as maize.

Although people in England have not yet been affected beyond having a limitation on their ability to water the garden, wildlife is suffering directly. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds released a graphic series of figures yesterday showing that once-common wading birds that need wet ground have had a catastrophic breeding season in the South-east. Wading birds need boggy grassland or damp meadows in which to nest and find their insect food.

Numbers of successful breeding lapwing, redshank and snipe have dropped by up to 80 per cent this year at five RSPB reserves in Sussex and Kent.

At Brading Marshes, an RSPB reserve on the Isle of Wight, where the low spring and summer rainfall has left land parched, redshanks have gone completely while just one pair of lapwings remains. "The South-east is undoubtedly drying up," said Phil Burston, the RSPB's senior water policy officer. "To save our wetlands, our wildlife and the livelihoods that depend on them, we must stop wasting so much water in homes and gardens, build houses to the highest water efficiency standards and force water companies to address their shameful rate of water leakage.

He added: "Failure to do it will see our wetlands ruined and billions of pounds squandered on unnecessary new reservoirs and more desalination plants."

Last week, Thames Water was criticised by Ofwat, the water regulator, for failing to meet its target for tackling leaks. It loses 915 million litres of water a day from old and crumbling pipes but says it has an extensive programme of pipe replacement.

The Environment Agency says below average rainfall and warm weather - if it continues - will cause serious problems for water companies in the South. We would expect to see more drought permit and drought order applications in these areas," a spokeswoman said. "There would be more hosepipe and sprinkler bans, and some non-essential use bans. Problems may extend towards the South-west and into limited parts of the Midlands and East Anglia.

"Most water companies will not have water supply problems until the end of August but we would expect to see further drought permit applications through the autumn to help reservoirs refill. We would have to restrict spray irrigation in some places to reduce environmental damage, and we would expect more widespread environmental problems, with fish kills, algal blooms and very low flows in some rivers."

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