The worst winter drought for a generation is gripping parts of Britain, leaving reservoirs a third full and forcing water companies to resort to emergency "raids" on rivers to replenish their dwindling reserves.
Experts warned yesterday that without an unprecedented increase in rainfall in the coming months, serious water shortages are inevitable this summer in south-east England.
The Environment Agency described the management of water supplies in the South-east during 2006 and 2007, where rainfall was last month just 50 per cent of average and some 3.4 million people remain under hosepipe bans imposed last summer, as "one of the biggest tests in decades".
A combination of factors, ranging from drier winters caused by climate change to ever-rising demand for water in the densely-populated South-east, have been highlighted as causes of a new long-term water problem in the region.
The winter drought, which is worst in Kent and East and West Sussex, has led one supply company, Southern Water, to seek an emergency "drought permit" to divert 20 million litres of water from the river Medway to fill Bewl Water, the largest reservoir in southern England. The reservoir in Kent is currently just 35 per cent full - its lowest level since it was constructed in 1975.
Environmentalists warned that the diversion could wreak havoc with fragile wetlands and wildlife by lowering the level of the Medway, which is already at low ebb.
The Independent has learnt that several other water companies supplying the South-east and southern England are preparing to make additional drought permit requests in the coming weeks.
Officials at the Environment Agency are expected to make a decision on the Southern Water drought permit next week.
But the agency admitted that low rainfall, which made the 11-month period up to November 2005 the driest for more than 25 years, have already made a drastic summer drought likely.
A spokeswoman said yesterday: "With a repeat of last winter's low rainfall we would have a serious drought on our hands this summer in the South-east.
"This could cause widespread environmental damage and lead to restrictions on water use."
Although there is no danger to drinking water supplies, it is understood that measures such as hosepipe and sprinkler bans will be imposed widely across the South-east without a dramatic increase in rainfall.
Ofwat, the water regulator, warned last year some water companies would be forced to run the risk of restricting their supplies in the event of a lengthy drought.
In a separate move that underlines the long-term water shortage problems in the region, the Government will also rule this month on whether Folkestone and Dover in Kent should become the first towns in the country to be declared as "water scarce". The measure would lead to compulsory water meters being fitted in 20,000 homes to reduce consumption levels.
Water company bosses warned in November that rainfall levels 50 per cent above average were needed this winter to avoid a summer drought.
Instead, winter rainfall in the South-east, which has the highest water consumption in the country, stands at less than 75 per cent of the annual average. Meteorologists say there is little sign of the sustained deluge now required to make up the shortfall.
The result is a dramatic disparity between reservoir levels in the South-east, currently running at 39 per cent of capacity, and the rest of country, where the minimum is 70 per cent of capacity. In Wales, reservoirs are 96 per cent full.
Water companies insist that the disparity has made measures such as drought permits for Bewl Water, where the boat ramp was recently extended to allow sailing enthusiasts to enter the retreating waters, an absolute necessity. At least one other major reservoir in the Southern Water area, Weir Wood, in East Sussex, is running at 34 per cent of capacity.
Meyrick Gough, water planning and strategy manager for Southern Water, said: "We have had only 71 per cent of rainfall in the past year and water sources across the region, particularly those underground, are well below where they should be.
"We are forecasting that 50 per cent more rain than normal is needed this winter to allow them to recover, but with a cold, dry winter on the cards, this is unlikely. Therefore this permit is essential."
The application for the permit is required because the Medway has already fallen below the flow rate of 275 million litres per day at which it is considered safe to divert excess water.
The Environment Agency said flows were already 50 per cent of the average in a number of major rivers across its southern region, as well in the north-east and north-west of England.
Environmentalists warned last night that "raids" on river resources under the drought permit system were not a viable solution to a long-term problem.
Roger Higman, environmental limits co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth, said: "Removing large amounts of water from a river flow has drastic knock-on effects - the level of the river itself drops and ground-water levels fall with it.
"The result can be the lowering of oxygen levels and the loss of supply to wetlands and water meadows, resulting in the loss of rare plants and animals.
"We are facing big problems in the long term that require a more strategic response than extracting water from rivers that already have reduced flow."
Are water suppliers doing enough to prevent a crisis?
The water industry claims it is doing everything to satisfy Britain's thirst for water, from building desalination plants to planning new reservoirs.
But as concern mounts about the consequences of the driest winter for nearly 30 years in southern England, questions are being asked about whether water companies and their customers are doing enough to cope with dwindling supplies and increasing demand.
The 15.5 million people in London and south-east England account for a quarter of the UK population, squeezed into a 10th of its land mass. People in the South-east consume more water than anyone else in Britain. Every day, the average water consumption is 154 litres per capita - in the South-east it is 175 litres. The result is massive pressure on water resources in a region which, according to an Environment Agency report five years ago, had already reached the point of demand equalling supply.
Environmentalists say water companies and consumers need to change their attitude. Roger Higman, environmental limits co-ordinator of Friends of the Earth, said: "People's use of water is going up at a time when climate change is giving us drier winters.There is enough water but our concern must be to produce and conserve it with the minimum of energy use. We still have an open mind as how that should be achieved. Something like a desalination plant is fairly energy intensive whereas a new reservoir would be less so."
Critics of the water industry say vast amounts of water are lost through leaking pipes. Ofwat, the water regulator, estimates that three billion litres - about a fifth of national consumption - is lost each day.
Many environmental groups believe that water meters are the best way to curb use. The inhabitants of Folkestone and Dover will learn later this month if they are to become the first in the country to be given compulsory water meters when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs decides whether the towns are "water scarce".
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