Summer comes early, but heat brings threat of drought for millions

The South is basking but after driest March in 50 years experts warn that water could soon be rationed

The weekend sunshine might be more than welcome, but water companies are beginning to cast a wary eye over reservoir levels after the driest March in southern England for half a century.

Although no companies are yet signalling formal drought alerts, some reservoir stocks are lower than they should be. In the south-west, Bristol Water has been forced to pump supplies from the Severn to maintain its levels. The company's main source, Chew Valley Lake in Somerset, is 20 per cent below normal levels for this time of year.

The dry March was caused by a "north-west/south-east split" in Britain's weather, which is continuing and is responsible for the recent sunny weather in the south, which is promising such a bright weekend. The "Azores high", the high-pressure system to the west of Spain, has been extending its influence north and east towards the British Isles, meaning that the westerly Atlantic lows which bring spring rains to the UK have been forced further north.

So while the UK as a whole had nearly 80 per cent of its normal March rainfall, and northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have had a wet start to the spring – there was a flood warning in Scotland yesterday – the south has been astonishingly dry.

Southern England and Wales have had their driest March since 1961, with each area having only a quarter of the expected rainfall. The driest region, East Anglia, had only 15 per cent of its normal precipitation in its driest March since 1929, and the second-driest since records began in 1910. Water UK, the umbrella body for the water companies in England and Wales, says there is "currently no concern about water supplies, but we are keeping an eye on things after what was a very dry March".

But the situation could change relatively quickly, if the dry weather runs on through April. A water company nightmare would be a repeat of the drought of 1995, or even worse, 1976, when water supplies were rationed.

The Met Office is suggesting that the pattern of a dry south and wet north is likely to continue over the next month. "England and Wales should still have a lot of fine and dry weather with some long spells of sunshine during the day," says its forecast for up to the end of the first week in May. "There will also be some showers or rain at times but rainfall should be below normal. Temperatures will be generally near normal or above normal everywhere."

As for this weekend, much of the country will be sunny and warm on both days, with some places very warm, even – dare we use the word? – hot. The forecast for the weekend is so good that the RSPCA has issued a warning to pet-owners reminding them of the dangers of leaving animals in hot cars, conservatories or caravans. "Often, owners make the mistake of thinking that it is sufficient to leave a bowl of water or a window open for their pet, but this is not enough to protect your pet from heatstroke, which can have fatal consequences," the charity said. Outside temperatures of 22C, recorded in southern England this week, could lead to the temperature in a car soaring to 47C in an hour. And Britain's bookmakers are braced for the busiest day of the year today with the Grand National at Aintree. The bookies believe the fine weather will encourage people to go out into the high street and place a bet.

"We expect more than half the adult population to place a Grand National flutter, betting £150m on the big race alone, on a day when industry-wide turnover could top £300m," said a spokesman for bookmaker Coral.

A dry look at history

*1854

A crippling drought affected much of the country, contributing to a massive cholera epidemic as people were forced to drink contaminated water. These conditions persisted for four years, inspiring meteorologist George Symons to found the British Rainfall Organisation, the world's first rain monitoring network. Partly as a result, Britain's climate is still among the most measured and studied in the world.

*1931

While the dustbowl turned America's farm-land to stubble, and severe famine struck Russia, western Europe also felt the effects of the 20th century's most far-reaching drought. In Britain, the period from April to October was the driest since records began in 1727, and weather stations in Kent recorded the lowest rainfall ever reliably recorded in Britain – less than 10 inches for the whole year.

*1976

The baking summer of 1975 was followed by a dry winter and spring, culminating in the famous drought of 1976. Rivers dried, emergency standpipes were set up, and, in desperation, the government appointed Denis Howell Minister for Drought as it battled the driest summer in 300 years.

*1995

There were short but extreme drought conditions from April to August. Unusually, northern areas of the country were worse affected than the south, and conditions were exacerbated in Yorkshire by mismanagement and leaks which led to the near-exhaustion of reservoirs. Feeling was so strong water company employees were advised not to wear uniforms in public.

Josephine Forster

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
News
i100
News
Prince Harry is clearing enjoying the Commonwealth Games judging by this photo
people(a real one this time)
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz