Hosepipe ban: Water rationing is on the horizon — could London really run dry?

·5 min read
Hosepipe ban: Water rationing is on the horizon — could London really run dry?

Greenwich Park is a savannah, wildfires have broken out in Croydon, and the source of the Thames has dried up. We’re on the verge of an unprecedented drought — and no amount of aftersun can soothe the sorry prospect of water rationing.

Around the UK, counties are acting accordingly. Hampshire and the Isle of Wight were hit by water restrictions on August 5. This Friday, on August 12, consumers in Kent and Sussex will be banned from using a mains-connected hosepipe to wash cars, fill up paddling pools or water gardens. And according to a statement released yesterday by Thames Water, it seems that London is following suit.

“Our aim is always to ensure that we will have enough water to supply our customers,” the company said in its statement. “Given the long-term forecast of dry weather...we are planning to announce a temporary use ban in the coming weeks.”

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

It’s perhaps little wonder, given that southern England recorded its driest July on record since 1836, with only 17 per cent of average rainfall, according to the Met Office. And arguably, the spectre of water restrictions has haunted the capital for months (Thames Water attributes its depleted reservoirs to the fact that “nine out of the last 11 months have been drier than average”) — but how likely are they to disrupt our everyday lives? So far the advice from water companies has been pedestrian: swap your hose for a watering can; take shorter showers (or switch to a damp flannel); turn off the taps while you brush your teeth; fix leaky loos and use full loads when you wash clothes.

But far more stringent measures may be on the horizon. Last week the Environment Agency held an emergency meeting of the National Drought Group, which issued a stark warning: “Projections show that, by 2050, some rivers could have between 50 and 80 per cent less water during the summer and summer temperatures are set to be up to 7.4 degrees hotter.”

Ofwat — the Water Services Regulation Authority — manages the contingency plans for serious droughts. We are currently in “level two” in terms of the severity of restrictions that Ofwat will allow. This is defined as a once-in-10-years event (though similar conditions were officially noted in 2011 and 2018), which allows water companies to implement hosepipe bans, and sits on the lower end of the scale. Level three is a once-in-20-years event and was last seen in 1976. At the time, water companies were permitted to place standpipes in the street. Level three restrictions also allow for businesses to face restrictions on water usage. Level four is the highest, and it anticipates a once-in-100-years event. In this scenario, water may be arbitrarily switched off; it may be brought by tanker to local communities which are in need and would likely mean whole periods of the day without water.

At the moment, most of London’s water is supplied by the rivers Thames and Lee, which feed a number of reservoirs where water is stored in case of situations like the one we’re experiencing. Problematically, the Thames itself is showing signs of depletion following months of drier-than-usual weather. In fact, according to the Rivers Trust, the mouth of the river has moved five miles downstream from Cirencester to Somerford Keynes. In fact, despite yesterday’s announcement, Thames Water had already begun to implement a “statutory drought plan” — the first stage was a media campaign promoting water saving tips to customers which they deployed back in May. The next stage will be implemented in the coming weeks (and is likely to include a hosepipe ban) which could last “not just for a few months, but throughout next year, if we have another dry winter.”

 (Alamy Live News.)
(Alamy Live News.)

In the worst-case scenario drought orders may mean that any business which abstracts water (meaning draws it from a natural source rather than the mains) would potentially be affected, according to Dr Gemma Coxon, a hydrologist at the University of Bristol.

“They’ll stop farmers abstructing water for irrigation and that will affect crop production,” she says. Energy companies may also find themselves in trouble because “they abstract water from the rivers to cool power stations.” Dr Coxon agrees that we are a long way off such a scenario — but at the moment demand is outpacing infrastructure.“I think we’re in a really challenging period for water resource management.”

And as temperatures have soared, our public spaces have become parched. “During this prolonged heatwave, we are not watering the grass,” says Michael Rowland, Head of Park Operations at The Royal Parks. “We are prioritising watering where we can make a difference, such as newly planted trees and shrubs, newly-laid turf, and bedding, where roots are still developing.”

The Royal Parks sources most of its water from boreholes or other waterbodies. Mains water is restricted “as a last resort,” according to Rowland.

 (PA)
(PA)

In the meantime, water shortages have become a political touchstone. Both Conservative leadership candidates, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, have levelled criticisms at water companies, even going so far as to suggest fines and penalties for those who fail to act more decisively on leaks.

As it stands, the UK loses three billion litres of water due to water company leaks, and as long ago as 2020, a report from the National Audit Office issued a warning that “if more concerted action is not taken now, parts of the south and south-east of England will run out of water within the next 20 years.” In the meantime, Thames Water loses almost 24 per cent of the water it supplies to leakage. It is also the worst-performing water company in terms of complaints, according to the Consumer Council for Water.

As recently as Monday, a burst Thames Water main in Hornsey left the area looking like a scene from the film Waterworld.

Thames Water said a 36-inch mains pipe had burst. “We know it’s not acceptable to be losing so much precious water but we’re doing something about it,” a spokesperson from the company says.

And the Conservative leadership candidates’ tough talk on utility providers belies a thin set of commitments towards helping solve the deeper issue of climate change. In the meantime, our summers will continue to get hotter and drier.