What happens when drought is declared by the UK government?

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA</span>
Photograph: Dave Higgens/PA

Parts of England were declared to be in drought on Friday. Here we look at what this means, and how long it may last.

Why are we in this situation?

The Environment Agency (EA) declared the whole of the UK is in a pre-drought stage earlier in the week. Now that regional droughts are declared we can expect to see more restrictions on water use by households, and if conditions worsen, on businesses too.

Related: UK weather: drought expected to be declared in parts of England on Friday

The decision comes after areas of southern and eastern England recorded less than 10% of average July rainfall, while for England as a whole it was the driest since 1935. The situation has continued into August, with south-east England receiving no rainfall so far this month.

So what does it actually mean?

Water companies will be required to enact their drought plans – already agreed with the EA – which include temporary bans on the use of hosepipes for watering gardens, cleaning cars or filling paddling pools.

“Hosepipe bans are common early measures and for good reason,” said Alastair Chisholm, the director of policy at the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. “They tackle profligate use first, before more essential use needs to be constrained. A lawn sprinkler can typically use 1,000 litres in an hour. That’s more than one person on average uses at the moment a week.”

The plans also allow companies to apply for drought permits, if needed, to abstract more water from rivers, reservoirs or aquifers.

“There will also be a lot more transferring of water around the network,” said Chisholm. “Water companies will pump water from one area, where they might have more resources, to another and pop-up storage reservoirs. You can’t easily move water massive distances because of high energy costs, but you can move it regionally.”

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What if conditions worsen?

If things get worse an “extreme drought” may be declared. This would result in local restrictions being introduced by water companies on non-essential water use, including limits on commercial car washes, swimming pools or the cleaning of commercial premises.

If conditions worsen further still, water companies may need to ask the government for an emergency drought order to allow them to ration water supplies to homes and business at certain times of day, or to ask customers to access water from standpipes or mobile water tanks. Farmers could also face restrictions on usage for irrigation.

Natural England, the government conservation body, also has the power to restrict access to some areas if there is a risk of fire caused by the dry conditions.

How long will this go on?

Drought conditions are expected to continue until October, with rivers forecast to be low and exceptionally low in central and southern England, and groundwater levels likely to be notably or exceptionally below normal in southern England and south Wales. There are also fears there could be irreversible damage to some environments, such as chalk streams.