Calls for hose pipe ban after warmest November in 353 years

Fri, Dec 2, 2011, 00:00

British water companies are worried about drought next year, following several months of low rainfall, writes MARK HENNESSY, London Editor

MOTOCROSS FANS in East Anglia were forced to postpone races last June because the track at Cadders Hall outside Lyng was so dry that racers and fans would have choked in a cloud of dust if they had gone ahead, following months of little or no rainfall.

Since then, the situation has improved little. Last month, Anglian Water was given permission by the secretary of state for the environment Caroline Spelman to draw off millions of litres of water from the river Nene to replenish reservoirs in Pitsford and Rutland.

Usually, Anglian draws 80 million litres a day from the Nene, but, faced with half-full reservoirs, the new permit increases the limit to 97 million litres daily – the first time the utility has had to seek such permission for 14 years. Meanwhile, it has hired 60 extra staff to stop leaks.

“It may have surprised people that we’ve granted a drought permit in November, but it is a warning of the need to take action now after the country has seen the driest 12 months since records began,” the environment secretary said yesterday.

“Unfortunately, if we have another dry winter, there is a high risk that parts of the country will almost certainly be in drought next summer, so it’s vital we plan ahead to meet this challenge,” she declared, urging homeowners to stop using hose pipes.

The Environment Agency declared a drought in Norfolk in June. Since then, it has received just 60 per cent of its average rainfall in September, slightly more in October, while November was also below par. Even if locals thought the months “quite dull and damp”, not enough rain arrived, says the agency.

In London, Thames Water is preparing to bring a desalination plant, built as a “just-in-case” precaution last year, into service from January if the rain clouds stay away, after below-average rains for all bar four of the last 19 months in the capital’s catchment.

People habitually describe London as “wet”, says the water utility: ” Not so. London is drier – not just per head but in absolute terms – than Dallas, Barcelona, Rome and Istanbul. In fact it gets half as much rain as Sydney.”

Given that the capital’s reservoirs hold just 100 days’ supply, winter rain is vital for London, replenishing rivers and aquifers. “Summer time rain is of little use to us, as it either evaporates or gets used by plants before reaching the groundwater,” says the company.

In a drought update yesterday, the Environment Agency said the worst-affected areas stretched from east Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Shropshire across the east midlands into Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and west Norfolk, along with Kent and East Sussex.

“In the midlands it has been the driest 12-month period from October to September since records began in 1910,” it went on, adding more rivers and streams than usual had dried up, particularly in the Lincolnshire Wolds.

London’s desalination plant at Beckton – which was opposed by Labour’s Ken Livingstone as wasteful and energy-hungry – can supply enough water for one million people a day from a supply of salt water and fresh water taken from the Thames tidal estuary.

The utility’s Richard Aylard, speaking to the Financial Times this week, said there was “a very real possibility of a drought” next year unless rains come quickly.

Meanwhile, there is little relief on the horizon, with forecasters saying November in the UK was the warmest since records began to be kept 353 years ago, while daily records fell one after the other in October.