Environment

What's caused the UK's water shortage - and what can I do to help?

The UK is heading for a period of drought after unusually dry weather. Here's what that means for you - and how you can save water at home.

Drought affects everything from water levels in rivers to the availability of drinking water.

Drought has been declared in several parts of England today with the spell of hot, dry weather set to continue. 

Parts of the UK have seen below average levels of rainfall for several weeks, with reservoirs drying up and water companies forced to put restrictions on use. 

Hosepipe bans are now covering parts of England, with other areas like Yorkshire set to also see bans in the coming weeks. 

But how did the UK get into this situation in the first place, and what does it mean for you? We’ve pulled together everything you need to know about the drought.

What is a drought?

A drought occurs when an area experiences an unusually low level of rainfall or snow, affecting everything from moisture in the soil to water levels in rivers. 

While droughts can be naturally occurring events, there is consensus among scientists that human-driven climate change is increasing the probability of drought events.

This is because an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is warming Earth and making prolonged spells of dry, hot weather more common in parts of the world.

England has been in what’s known as a “prolonged dry weather” period for a while due to the unusually dry conditions in spring and summer.

This is the last step before a drought is officially declared. Parts of southern, central and eastern England have now officially been declared as in drought.

What causes a drought?

Droughts occur as a result of low rainfall, which can be driven by a variety of factors like climate change, ocean temperature and changes in a local landscape. 

In the UK, the extremely hot July that just passed and an unusually dry spring has contributed to the likely onset of drought.

Another heatwave this week has further exacerbated the situation. 

The way that water is managed and used can also have an impact on an area’s ability to cope with drought conditions. 

Water companies in England have been heavily criticised for failing to meet targets on reducing leakage in its infrastructure.

Analysis by The Times shows that water companies are leaking up to a quarter of their supply a day, amounting to around 2.4 billion litres of water.

Thames Water has also attracted controversy after it was revealed that a £250m desalination plant launched 12 years ago to increase drinking water supplies has been put on hold.

What are the effects of drought?

Drought has a number of negative effects on humans, animals and the environment.

For one, drought reduces available water supply for drinking as well as other human activities like showering and washing clothes.

More crucially, drought leaves less water available for farmers to water their crops, increasing the risk of crop failure and disruption to available food supply. 

Drought can also increase the risk of invasive pests on crops, which could also lead to failure. 

A reduced amount of water in rivers and lakes can increase the levels of pollution, while higher water temperatures can reduce oxygen levels and negatively affect aquatic life. 

Wildlife is also affected by a lack of available water, and some animals can become dehydrated as a result.

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How can I use less water? 

Some parts of the country, including Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight will see hosepipe bans in the coming week.

A hosepipe ban means you can’t use a hosepipe to water plants, wash cars or fill paddling pools.

It’s possible other parts of the country will see similar bans in the coming weeks if the dry weather continues. 

The public are also being asked to conserve their water use as much as possible. There are a number of easy ways to do this at home, including:

  • Avoiding watering your lawn and plants wherever possible – they’re hardier than you might think and will recover quickly when rain returns 
  • Taking shorter showers
  • Fixing leaks 
  • Making sure taps are turned off properly
  • Making sure your dishwasher and/or washing machine is full before using it 

You could also consider setting up a rain butt to collect water when it does rain, or collect waste water from your shower, and use it to water plants. 

Water companies may also take additional measures to mitigate shortages such as using desalination plants to take water from rivers and remove salt to make it drinkable. 

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