Is it drought - or just the wrong kind of water?

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The Independent Online
IS THERE, or is there not, a drought? Last week brought confusion as well as grey skies and some rain to Britain.

The privatised water companies continue to blame the weather (and their customers) for the hosepipe bans and other restrictions now affecting 18 million people, while congratulating themselves on doing "a fantastic job" in maintaining supplies. But the National Rivers Authority (NRA) reported on Friday that the drought was not as severe, and water not as scarce, as companies maintain.

No one has seemed as confused as the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer. Three weeks ago, he denied there was a drought, urged people to enjoy the sun, and praised the companies. But last weekend he admitted that "one of the hottest and driest summers on record ... has put pressure on our water resources" and told the companies to improve their performance.

This summer has indeed been very dry, but the drought is not nearly as severe as in 1976. Then, water authorities applied for 136 drought orders to conserve supplies. This year the companies have asked for less than 20 and have only been granted two, both in Yorkshire.

The summer of 1976 followed 12 months of dry weather. This one, though even drier, follows record rains. Last winter, the water companies now omit to remind us, was the wettest since 1869. By spring reservoirs were running over and ground water aquifers were soaked. The Water Service Association, representing the private companies, which now blames the weather for restrictions, announced this spring that it was "highly improbable that there would be any bans this summer". Yet the first restrictions were imposed in late June, at the very beginning of the sunny weather.

As the NRA points out, and the water companies grudgingly admit, water resources are still "reasonably satisfactory over much of England and Wales". But some reservoirs are emptying fast, the country's rivers are only half as full as normal for August and the ground is parched. However, the ground water aquifers are still full and the only real crises are in areas served by small, unlinked reservoirs.

Yorkshire is the worst affected region and Sir Gordon Jones, its pounds 189,000- a-year chairman, has been summoned to explain to ministers tomorrow how it has been hit so badly. The company is particularly keen to blame the weather. The catchment area of Bradford, where the crisis is most acute, only had six per cent of its average rainfall in August. But Yorkshire has had water shortages in five of the past seven years, wet or dry. One- third of Yorkshire's water leaks from its pipes, one of the worst rates in the country.

Leakage is a nationwide problem. Last week the NRA pointed out that Britain led the world in knowing how to stop leaks but still has one of the worst water wastage records of any developed country.

This summer's restrictions have sprung from prudence as well as incompetence. Demand increased on occasions to seven times the normal levels. Many companies imposed restrictions, not because water was short, but because they feared a real crisis next year if this summer is followed by another dry 12 months.