Businesses urged to act to counter 2012 drought

The Environment Agency (EA) is urging businesses and farmers to share water supplies as part of a strategy to manage water scarcity, as it warns drought could last until next summer.

In its report ‘Drought prospects for winter and spring 2011/2012’ the EA says “if rainfall over the rest of autumn and winter is below average, then the band of central and eastern England that has experiences the driest weather over the last year is at risk of drought impacts on all sectors next spring and summer”.

South east England is also at “high risk” of drought next year due to low rainfall levels, while the remaining parts of south west, central and eastern England are at moderate risk. The risk of drought for the rest of England and Wales is no higher than normal.

The EA is calling on all water abstractors, including businesses and farmers, to “look for ways to share and make the best use of limited water resources, such as setting up a water abstractor group, water audits and implementing measures to improve water efficiency”.

While it is not aware of any immediate risks to industry, the EA also says there is a risk that low rainfall, resulting in lower river flows, could affect the power generation industry next year. It also warned that other large industrial abstractors, such as aggregate washing or concrete production, “may be affected by conditions of their licences being implemented earlier than normal”.

The ongoing dry conditions this year have already led to concerns from water companies over water supply. Earlier this week, Anglian Water was granted a drought permit to top up its Pitsford reservoir with water taken from the River Nene. The EA says it is also concerned about reservoir levels in Kent and East Sussex and is in pre-application discussions with South East Water regarding two potential permits to refill its reservoirs.

However, with the exception of Anglian, Severn Trent, South East and South West, water companies have said that they do not predict they will need to take additional drought actions this winter to safeguard supplies.

Therefore, the risk of drought depends entirely on the level of rainfall over the next few months. If these parts of the country experience average rainfall in the period, which only occurs 50% of the time, groundwater levels in the chalk aquifers in southern and eastern England are “likely to mostly be notably low for the time of year”. It only needs rainfall to fall to 80% of the average for most to become “exceptionally low” by June next year. And some areas, such as the Midlands, have already experienced the driest 12 months, from October 2010 to September 2011, since records began in 1910.

Further dry weather, combined with freezing conditions, which creates greater levels of leakage through burst pipes, “would be the worst case scenario”, according to the EA.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said: “We are working with all sectors to plan ahead to meet the challenges of a continued drought.

“Water availability is one of the major challenges that the UK will face in the years ahead and while droughts are not new, we may face a future with less rainfall and less certainty about when that rain will fall.

“Next month we will set out our plans to ensure we have a safe and secure water supply in the future.”

View the full ‘Drought prospects for winter and spring 2011/2012’ here.

Will Parsons

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