A drought has been declared across wide swathes of England after a meeting of experts.
The prolonged dry conditions, with some areas of the country not receiving significant rainfall all summer, have caused the National Drought Group to declare an official drought.
The Environment Agency has moved into drought in eight of its 14 areas: Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and south London, Herts and north London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and the east Midlands.
Documents seen by the Guardian show the Environment Agency expects a further two areas will move into drought later in August. These are Yorkshire and West Midlands.
The group met earlier this summer to discuss the lack of rainfall and decided to put the country in “prolonged dry weather status”, the first of four emergency dry weather stages, and one step before drought. Now, the country has been tipped into that second stage.
This means water rationing may take place across the country, with fewer barriers for water companies who wish to ban customers from using hosepipes and washing the car with tap water. More severe measures can also be put in place at this stage, including banning the use of sprinklers the cleaning of buildings, vehicles and windows.
So far this year hosepipe bans have been implemented by Southern Water and South East Water. Welsh Water will implement a ban from 19 August, and Yorkshire Water from 26 August. Thames Water has also said it is “ready to go” with a hosepipe ban.
Those in the meeting were shown harrowing statistics about England’s food security. Half of the potato crop is expected to fail as it cannot be irrigated, and even crops that are usually drought tolerant such as maize have been failing.
The group was told “irrigation options are diminishing with reservoirs being emptied fast”, and losses of between 10% and 50% are expected for crops including carrots, onions, sugar beet, apples and hops. Milk production is also down nationally due to a lack of food for cows, and wildfires are putting large areas of farmland at risk.
Farmers are deciding whether to drill crops for next year, and there are concerns that many will decide not to, with dire consequences for the 2023 harvest.
The government was keen to stress that essential water supplies for households are not at risk.
Water minister Steve Double said: “We are currently experiencing a second heatwave after what was the driest July on record for parts of the country. Action is already being taken by the government and other partners including the Environment Agency to manage the impacts. All water companies have reassured us that essential supplies are still safe, and we have made it clear it is their duty to maintain those supplies.
The group contains representatives from water companies, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency (EA), the National Farmers’ Union, Natural England, CCW, Ofwat, Water UK and the Drinking Water Inspectorate, as well as the Angling Trust and the Rivers Trust.
While previous dry summers have been offset by wet autumns, meaning the worst effects on water supply have not hit, those present at the meeting were told that was unlikely to be the case this year, with arid conditions predicted to continue due to climate breakdown.
Slides from the EA say: “An increased chance of warm conditions through August to October is consistent with an increased westerly flow from warmer than average seas, and our warming climate. With a typical north-west (wetter) to south-east (drier) gradation in rainfall most likely, there are no strong signals for a significant amelioration of current dry conditions.”
Catherine Sefton, a hydrologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “In the south-east of England, the continued dry weather means that many river flows remain notably or exceptionally low, and hydrological forecasts suggest this situation will persist over the next few months.
“Where river flows are supported by groundwater that recharges during the winter months, the impact of dry weather is reduced. But a continuation of below average rainfall into a second winter would likely result in serious hydrological and environmental drought, with further intensification of the water supply restrictions and fish rescues that we are starting to see in the south-east.”
The last time a drought was announced was in 2018,. Though research has not yet been conducted to determine whether this year’s drought was caused by climate breakdown, the dry conditions and extreme heat in 2018 were found by the Met Office to have been made 30 times more likely by climate change.
There have been five consecutive months of below average rainfall across all geographic regions in England and above average temperatures. River flows, groundwater levels and reservoir stocks all decreased during July. Thirteen EA monitored indicator rivers are at the lowest levels ever recorded and soil moisture deficit is comparable to that seen at the end of the 1976 drought.
Scotland and Wales have similar drought reaction groups, which are also understood to be meeting this summer after drier than usual conditions.