Outside the capital, water restrictions are being put into effect. Southern Water will enforce the first hosepipe ban in southeast England on Friday in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. This means if residents want to irrigate their garden, they’ll need to use conservative methods such as watering cans or potentially face a fine of up to £1,000. South East Water Ltd. will impose a similar ban on customers in Kent and Sussex from Aug. 12.
The glaring scenes across London raise the question of whether the capital is next in line to declare a drought. That decision will be up to Thames Water Utilities Ltd., which is responsible for London’s water supply. The company said it’s ready to implement water usage restrictions if the unusually long dry streak continues. It now has a “statutory drought plan” in place, detailing a plethora of actions it would take as the situation worsens.
“We know the water we have stored in our reservoirs will continue to reduce, so if we do not receive around or above average rainfall in the coming months this will increase pressure on our resources and may indeed result in the need for more water saving measures including restrictions,” a Thames Water spokesperson said in an email.
Still, a hosepipe ban in London is unlikely in the immediate future. While most would agree that London is in a climate drought — just look at the yellow grass — it would take critically low reservoir levels for a so-called water-resources drought. This is the kind that Thames Water cares about.
For now, the capital’s large reservoirs, which can supply the city for hundreds of days, are now at “very comfortable levels,” according to Dobson. Reservoirs in London were 91% full at the end of June, before the heatwave, which was already below average for the time of year, but still far off any prospect for a ban.
Water rationing is a measure of last resort that would only come after awareness campaigns and hosepipe bans. Even though it’s on the table, water companies are usually wary of triggering a consumer backlash. Utilities have other options such as tapping emergency aquifers — rock formations that hold groundwater — or old reservoirs that are no longer in use but still have some water in them. They could also convince the UK’s Environment Agency to let them take more water out of the river to avoid any kind of rationing — though that risks resource depletion and other environmental concerns, Dobson said.
Rainfall is lagging, with England recording the driest July in 87 years amid searing and deadly heat. There may have been 844 excess deaths in England and Wales during the heatwave last month, according to a preliminary analysis. The Met Office expects temperatures to rise again next week, with some areas in the south reaching 30 °C.
While by definition a drought is caused by a period of low rainfall, its impact on people, the environment, agriculture, and businesses varies. Some droughts are short and intense — for example, it could just be one hot, dry summer. Others are long and take time to develop over multiple seasons.