More drought orders sought as the heat bites

The water crisis: Another seven million consumers face a hosepipe ban but Government ducks the chance to enforce savings
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The Independent Online

Environment Correspondent

Another water company applied to the Government for drought orders last night, while North West Water is to introduce a hosepipe ban today.

If, as expected, North West's restriction covers all 7 million of its customers in and around Merseyside, Manchester, Lancashire and Cumbria, this will almost treble the number of Britons under hosepipe and sprinkler bans.

With no significant rainfall forecast for the rest of this week, several other utilities are poised to widen or introduce bans, while South West Water last night applied for five drought orders.

If granted - and that would take at least a fortnight of public consultation - these would allow the company to impose further restraints on consumers and take extra water from two Cornish rivers.

South West also extended its hosepipe ban from Cornwall into South and West Devon, including Torquay. The move means some 3 million people in the West Country, the South-east, and West and North Yorkshire are covered by hosepipe bans, with another million under sprinkler bans.

Yorkshire Water, which hopes the Government will grant its application for two drought orders early next week, yesterday put up 240 standpipes in the Wrose area of Bradford but did not cut off supplies to the 7,000 homes in the district.

The move was intended to shock the press and the public into understanding water supplies in the region are now extremely low. But the Department of the Environment pointed out that the company had not yet applied for the legal powers needed to cut off people's supplies and install standpipes - that process would take about a fortnight.

''In some badly depleted reservoirs we're losing over 4 per cent of the water each week,'' a spokesman said. ''At this rate we only have a few weeks left.''

Meanwhile, the Government has shied away from a string of proposals which would encourage water companies and consumers to save water.

Yesterday it was condemned for failing to act by environmental groups who are worried about the damage to wildlife and habitats caused by the drying out of wetlands and rivers and the building of reservoirs.

For more than two years, the water industry, consumer and environmental organisations have been waiting for the Department of the Environment to publish a document on water conservation.

Water Conservation - Government Action is now being printed and the text has been given to journalists. The 16-page publication makes no substantial new commitments on saving water, referring instead to action already undertaken or proposals which the Government is still considering.

It rules out mandatory targets for the water companies to reduce mains leakage, saying this is a matter best left to the companies and the industry's economic regular, Ofwat.

One-quarter of the treated water pumped into the mains is wasted through leakage into the ground. North West Water and Yorkshire Water, among the companies most severely affected by the drought, have the highest leakage rates.

Ministers have also ruled out making builders install showers in all new homes or giving householders on low incomes grants towards the costs of water-saving equipment such as showers or dual-flush toilets. The document points out that legislation has just been encated giving water companies a duty to promote the efficient use of water.

It reiterates that the Government wants the use of water meters for customers to be spread ''as far and as quickly as possible,'' especially in areas facing shortages.

''There's nothing new in this document,'' said Sarah Fowler of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has been campaigning for more careful use of water. ''Leaving water companies to work out their own leakage targets is like giving jailed burglars their cell keys.''

Nichola Coombs, water campainger with the Council for the Protection of Rural England, said: ''It's a disappointment to say the least. There should be a much stronger stand on leakage.''