Yet it need not have happened. As an emergency tanker fleet is poised to start bringing in water from outside the Yorkshire Water region, a Government-commissioned report shows that the company has yet to exploit a huge water source on its own doorstep.
St Aidan's Pit, a vast, flooded open-cast coal mine five miles from Leeds, could provide 20,000 cubic metres of water a day - about the same amount that will soon be coming in on 200 road tankers from the water- rich Northumbrian region.
The report into Yorkshire's crisis, by consulting engineers Rofe, Kennard and Lapworth, says the water in the pit beside the River Aire "is reported to be of surprisingly good quality ... in our opinion this source could have been utilised earlier".
Yorkshire Water, weary from a long summer of criticism, said it was planning to use the pit if the drought continued. But there were problems in getting pumps and tankers to it, and it would have to be blended with cleaner water to be drinkable.
On Tuesday the company faces its critics at a public inquiry. It hopes to persuade a Government-appointed inspector that there is a case for an immediate emergency drought order. This would enable rota cuts to begin in the Halifax and Huddersfield areas, cutting off supply for 24 hours in every 48.
It would be the first time this has happened on the British mainland, although night timecut-offs were implemented inrural areas of Northern Ireland this summer.
Yorkshire Water managers are engaged in meetings with worried schools, hospitals, nursing homes and businesses which are dependent on water.
Leaflets this week will warn householders of the need to boil all drinking and food preparation water once the cuts begin, and to store water in clean, covered containers. Health officials have already warned ofpossible dysentery outbreaks.
West Yorkshire Area Health Authority's public health officer Chris Worth said: "I hope people don't chuck the leaflets in the bin, because there is a real danger of dysentery and food poisoning. It is crucial that people follow the health guidelines."
Local MPs have called for a state of emergency and for the Army to be brought in to help with the distribution of water. "Never mind whose fault it is, the fact is that a real disaster is about to happen here," said Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield. He agrees with Yorkshire Water that the public's response to the crisis had been deeply disappointing. While the company has been calling for a readily-achievable voluntary 25 per cent cut in household consumption, the response has varied from nought to 10 per cent.
"There's a deep psychological problem following privatisation of water. People think 'Why the hell should we economise?'" said Mr Sheerman. "There isn't much loyalty."
After an extremely dry summer the autumn rain has failed to fall in substantial quantities over the worst affected areas. Several reservoirs are completely empty. Meanwhile, Yorkshire Water has promised to cut its leakage rate from 26 to 24 per cent by 1998.