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This blog post was published under the 2015-2024 Conservative Administration

Drought explained

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Environment Agency, water, Weekly stories
Water running from a tap
Water running from a tap

What is drought? 

There isn’t a single definition for drought so whilst it’s caused by a period of low rainfall, the nature, timing and impacts on people, the environment, agriculture or business will vary.

Some droughts are short and intense, caused by a hot, dry summer. Others are long and take time to develop over multiple seasons due to low amounts of rainfall.

The main types of drought, which may occur separately or together are:

  • Agricultural drought – when there isn’t enough rainfall and moisture in soils to support crop production or farming practices such as spray irrigation.
  • Environmental drought – when lack of rainfall has a detrimental impact on the environment and ecology.
  • Water supply drought – when a lack of rainfall leads to concerns from water companies about supplies for their customers.

The Environment Agency (EA) monitors various indicators (such as rainfall, river flows, groundwater levels, reservoir storage, ecology, public water supplies) and will decide the level of drought an area is in.

The EA also chairs the National Drought Group, bringing together government, regulators, industry and other stakeholders to provide a multi-sector overview and strategic management of drought.

We use four stages to describe and manage our response:

  • Prolonged dry weather – this period is characterised as the early stages of drought where we find there has been a period of dry weather and this is impacting on river flows, groundwater levels and water levels in lakes and reservoirs.
  • Drought
  • Severe drought
  • Recovering from drought.

What is the current situation? 

In late May and June, low rainfall and hot weather (with associated high demand) caused rivers levels to fall and caused ecological stress in a number of areas.  However, recent rainfall has helped to restore river flows in many parts of the country and reduced temperatures in the water environment, which has helped fish and other wildlife.

The natural environment continues to take time to recuperate from the impacts of last summer. Parts of East Anglia also remain in drought (since August 2022) due to residual impacts on groundwater from last year’s drought. Devon and Cornwall also remain in drought (since August 2022) due to low water levels in two strategic public water supply reservoirs. The Environment Agency anticipates that these areas will not return to normal status until at least winter (subject to rainfall amounts).

The dry weather in May and early June meant that two Environment Agency areas – Cumbria and Lancashire, and the West Midlands – entered prolonged dry weather status. Rainfall over the last three weeks, has meant Cumbria and Lancashire has now returned to normal status. England has now seen rainfall over the long-term average for July.

All other areas are currently in ‘recovering from drought’ or ‘normal’ status.

The Environment Agency continues to regularly monitor the situation and provide regular updates on, including weekly rainfall and river flow reports and monthly water situation reports by area.

Environment Agency action during drought

All water companies are required to have drought plans and continue to plan for reasonable worst-case scenarios.

The Environment Agency is responsible for:

  • Making sure that those abstracting water are not taking more than they are licensed to.
  • Running water transfer schemes where water is moved locally to meet specific needs for public water supply, agriculture and industry, as well as to help safeguard the water environment as low river flows can impact fish, other wildlife and habitat.
  • Responding to environmental incidents such as fish in distress. In June 2023, the Environment Agency attended 58 incidents, including rescuing fish and deploying aerators, which are used to oxygenate water.
  • Helping with support packages for farmers affected by drought. For example, water trading between farmers in catchments to help reduce water usage, as well as allowing them to abstract water where it doesn’t harm the environment and other water users.

Government action to boost supply and reduce demand 

Through the Plan for Water, the government is taking a twin-track longer-term approach to boost supplies and reduce demand in order to tackle longer-term pressures.

The Government, regulators and water companies are looking to increase our resilience to drought by:

  • Speeding up and streamlining planning applications for new reservoirs and water recycling facilities through the National Policy Statement for Water Resources.
  • Setting ambitious targets for water companies to crack down on leakage – including targets to reduce leakage by 30% by 2032 as set out in the Plan for Water.  
  • Supporting farmers to store more water on their land - including launching a second £10 million Water Management Grant to fund on-farm reservoirs and better irrigation equipment, with a third round expected next year.
  • Unlocking an additional £469 million of investment to develop new large-scale water infrastructure, including transfers, recycling, and reservoirs through the Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development (RAPID) programme.
  • Increasing water company investment in water resilience schemes – Ofwat announced in June that water companies will bring forward £350 million of investment in water resilience schemes starting in the next two years.
  • Scrutinising and holding water companies to account for their five year plans on water resources. The next set of plans – due to published by next summer – include proposals for several new schemes by 2050, including nine desalination plants, nine new reservoirs, 11 new water recycling schemes and the expansion of some existing reservoirs.

We can all help to increase our resilience to drought by using less water. Every drop that comes from out from our taps has been taken from our environment. The government has committed to reducing public water use by 20% by 2038 - from 144 litres per person per day to 122 litres per person per day - and to reduce leakage by 50% by 2050. We are working towards this and reducing demand by:

  • Developing a mandatory water efficiency label on water using products, such as showers, taps and toilets, by 2025.
  • Ensuring better water efficiency in new homes and developments including considering water efficiency measures for water stressed areas.
  • Supporting water saving campaigns to encourage everyone to play their part in conserving precious water resources.

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1 comment

  1. Comment by John W. Baxter posted on

    Just think what could be achieved if the leakage of potable water was reduced much more quickly before 2050, there would be so much less water needed to be extracted by water companies from our currently inadequate reservoir network and water companies would not have to impose hose pipe bans , but be able to sell more product through an improved leak free system, not unlike oil companies.
    The solution to pollution by dilution of our effluents into water courses would be improved by better waste water treatment quality and quantity and not require as much dilution in times of low rainfall if more water was allowed to flow in the natural water courses and allow nature to recover from the damage we have inflicted by over exploitation in the past.

    long before