Hosepipe bans and rising food prices are set to hit millions of Britons after the Government raised the prospect of a spring and summer drought across a swathe of England following one of the driest winters on record.
Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, used a crisis summit of water companies, farmers and wildlife groups to declare that the South-east was officially in drought. A belt of eastern England from Northamptonshire to Norfolk has been facing drastic water shortages since last summer.
Thames Water, which serves 14 million homes and businesses, confirmed there was a "high chance" it would need to impose restrictions this summer as water companies struggle to replenish reservoirs, and rivers run dry or flow at a fraction of their normal rates, raising memories of the infamous 1976 drought.
Ms Spelman called on consumers to cut water use and urged suppliers to consider connecting their pipe networks, which would allow water to be transferred from wetter parts of the country.
Farming representatives demanded concessions that would allow growers to fill irrigation reservoirs.
Andrew Alston, who heads an association of 170 agricultural water users in Norfolk, said: "We're staring a very long drought in the face. The land is incredibly dry. Unless we get a lot of rainfall or the rules are changed to allow extra abstraction, crops may well fail and prices rise. There is a choice to be made about food security."
Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said: "The vast majority of people are unaware that we are in the middle of a crippling drought – river levels are lower in many areas than they were in 1976."