Leading article: Preparation is the only defence against drought

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The consequences of an exceptionally dry spring are hitting home.

The Department for Environment announced yesterday that parts of England are officially in a drought. East Anglia has been hard hit. Parts of the Midlands, the South-west and the South-east are also suffering.

Many water companies have made impressive efforts in recent years to reduce the amount of their supplies that are wasted through leaks. But Severn Trent Water has nevertheless said that there might be restrictions on the public use of water if rainfall stays low. Thames Water has said that hosepipe bans – that bugbear of Middle England – are unlikely. But several more weeks without rain could easily change that. More serious is the threat of further pressure on food prices as crop yields fall because of the lack of rain. We are not an island of dryness either. Large areas of northern Europe are also facing a drought.

If there is less of something – and there is no prospect of increasing supply – we need to use it more sparingly. Peter Kendall of the National Farmers' Union has stressed the need for investment in more sophisticated farming irrigation systems. But this crisis also emphasises the need to speed up the introduction of domestic water meters, which should provide a financial incentive for conservation. Local authorities need to take into consideration the pressure on local water resources when authorising new housing developments.

Some water companies are manifestly more competent than others. The shortcomings of Northern Ireland Water were exposed last Christmas when 40,000 homes were left without supplies over the holiday period during the freezing weather conditions. A Northern Ireland Consumer Council report blamed a failure of planning by the company. Governments and water companies cannot be expected to regulate rainfall patterns. But they have an important job to do, nevertheless, in preparing us to deal with the vicissitudes of nature.

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