Britain runs dry again - and it's only February

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The Independent Online
One thing many people can remember about the last Labour government was the great drought of '76, and the appointment of the sports minister, Denis Howell, to handle the crisis.

Yesterday, it looked as if an incoming Labour government might have to repeat history. January rustled to a close having had less than one-fifth of the average rainfall for the month. Rivers trickle, groundwater tables are at record lows and water companies fret.

It was the fourth driest January in records stretching back more than 300 years - but one dry month does not make a drought. The water companies need a better excuse if they are once again to impose hosepipe bans and further restrictions in the summer.

They may have one. It has not only been a dry winter and autumn, but a dry decade. Since the end of September, which is when the annual recharge of Britain's aquifers, rivers and reservoirs begins, England and Wales have had only three quarters of the long-term average rainfall for October to January (while Scotland has had slightly more than average).

And since 1988 the annual rainfall in England and Wales has been below the long-term average every year, apart from in 1994.

So has the English climate altered, perhaps because of man-made global warming? The Meteorological Office says it is too early to say; the shortfalls may be a random fluctuation. But water company executives say there appears to be a permanent decline in rainfall.

They argue that because of this, and the steadily rising public demand for water, they need to expand resources, mainly by building new reservoirs. That would involve persuading Ofwat, the water regulator, to allow them to raise their bills in order to finance the construction.

Some senior officials in the Government's Environment Agency, which regulates water use, also believe the climate has become drier. But they say that before spending hundreds of millions of pounds drowning countryside under reservoirs, there are many cheaper things that water companies can do to eke out supplies.

First, says the agency, they need to reduce leakage - both in their pipes and those of their customers, campaign more about the need to save, and install meters in homes with gardens which use the most water.

Second, the companies should be made to co-operate more, so those with surplus water transfer it to neighbouring companies running short. And third, they should consider increasing the capacity of their existing dams.

If the dry weather continues into a hot summer, millions are likely to face restrictions again. But if there is average rainfall there are likely to be few drought restrictions.

Battered by criticism in 1995, the worst-hit companies began work to make better use of supplies. At a cost of pounds 400m, these include cutting leakage, building new pipelines to create regional water grids, and cleaning dirty water for drinking water.

But if 1997 is even drier still, these improvements may not suffice to hold up supplies. The South-east has suffered one of the biggest rainfall deficits in the country over the past four months, and it shows.

Winter pumping of water from the River Medway into Bewl Water, Kent and Sussex's largest reservoir, has had to stop because the flow in the river is below the agreed minimum.

Its owner, Southern Water, has applied for a drought order to start taking water from the river, even though flows are below the agreed level.

Next year Southern starts a project to desalinate water from an aquifer in East Kent. Folkestone and Dover Water is considering importing water from France, using the Channel tunnel's fire fighting mains.