Water firm given emergency powers to combat drought

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More than 600,000 people and thousands of businesses in the suburbs and commuter hinterland south of London face stringent curbs on water use from today after the Government granted their water supplier emergency powers to combat the growing drought in the South-east.

The first drought order in Britain for more than a decade was granted to Sutton and East Surrey Water, allowing the company to limit or ban non-essential uses of water in its region.

Non-essential uses range from filling swimming pools and watering sports pitches with hosepipes or sprinklers, to running fountains and operating car washes. People will not be able to wash their own cars other than for safety or hygiene reasons - meaning that only the windscreen and headlights can be cleaned.

The order is the result of what the Environment Agency said yesterday was the worst drought in the region for the past hundred years after two winters of extremely low rainfall.

It will affect up to 650,000 people in 270,000 households, and about 18,000 businesses, in an area of about 300 square miles extending from Morden, Sutton and South Croydon in the north to Gatwick airport in the south, and from Cobham, Leatherhead and Dorking in the west to Edenbridge and Bough Beech in the east. It is likely to be followed shortly by further drought orders for two more companies, Southern Water and Mid-Kent Water, which will bring the total number of people affected to 2.5 million.

And if Thames, Britain's biggest water company, applies for and receives an order of its own - as it is considering doing - those affected by severe restrictions will total more than 10 million, in a vast area stretching from London to Gloucestershire. There are already domestic hosepipe bans in operation throughout the region.

Granting the order, the first since the summer of 1995, Ian Pearson, the Environment minister, said it was "an important option" as part of contingency planning to cope with drought. "The Government takes very seriously the well-being of the public and the need to minimise the risk of more severe restrictions if the drought continues," he said.

"The drought in the South-east remains serious. There have been misleading and unhelpful reports suggesting that recent rainfall has somehow solved the problem. It hasn't. Reservoir levels may have risen, but river flows and groundwater levels are worryingly low and we are now at the end of the vital recharge period which should have replenished them."

Mr Pearson said ground water provided 70 per cent of supply in the South-east as a whole, and in Sutton and East Surrey's case it was 85 per cent.

He said he expected the company to use its powers "sensitively" and to take account of the needs of particular sectors, to maximise water savings and minimise the economic and social impacts on people and small businesses which rely on water for their livelihood.

"In deciding which uses to ban, the company should take a proportionate approach, considering seriously the amount of water that is likely to be saved against the hardship likely to result," Mr Pearson said. "The key to minimising the impact of drought is to act before the situation becomes extreme."

The Environment Agency urged people and businesses throughout the South-east to save as much water as possible, pointing out that if there was a hot dry summer supply might have to come through standpipes later in the year. David King, the agency's director of water management, said: "Over the last 18 months rainfall has been much lower than during the 1974-76 drought and has been very similar to the serious drought of 1932-34."