The worst droughts in UK history CHARTED: How will this one compare?


UK bakes in latest heatwave with drought looming for some areas

After the driest July since 1935 where temperatures in England exceeded 40C for the first time, the Environment Agency today announced eight areas in England were in a state of drought. Nearly a decade since the last severe nationwide drought, the familiar historical pattern of abnormally dry weather and scorching temperatures have left reservoirs and rivers critically low. Hosepipe bans are due to come into force across the country, with ones put in place in Kent and Sussex earlier today. 

Droughts describe a lack of water caused by an extended period of weather without sufficient rainfall.

On average, the UK experiences a drought every five to ten years, with the South East suffering most as it has the highest population and demand for water, as well as the lowest levels of precipitation.

Severe droughts can have an impact on the ecosystem, agriculture and the wider economy and increase the risk of wildfires.

Colliford Lake in Cornwall

Colliford Lake, Cornwall’s largest reservoir, at severely low levels (Image: EXPRESS, PA)

Water suppliers in the UK

Water supply companies and their catchment areas across England and Wales (Image: EXPRESS)

This July was England’s driest since 1935, immediately following the driest half-year since the Seventies.

On July 19, the 40C temperature barrier was breached for the first time, Coningsby in Lincolnshire now holding the record with 40.3C.

After months of little rainfall and hot weather driving up household demand for water, reservoirs are now depleted and rivers low across the UK.

The River Thames is reportedly five miles shorter as its source has dried up.

An amber extreme heat weather warning being issued for much of Southern England and Wales yesterday, and a drought is expected to be declared later today.

READ MORE: What happens if a drought is declared? Rules Britons have to follow

Chart of droughts in UK history

Major droughts throughout British history charted (Image: EXPRESS)

There have been many notable droughts in the past, but perhaps the most severe and often overlooked is that of 1765 to 1768, affecting the entirety of the British Isles, reportedly so severe major rivers such as the Shannon could be crossed on foot.

The worst drought of the last century took place in the mid-Seventies, when the dry winter of 1975 to 1976 was followed by one of the hottest and driest summers since records began.

Many places received less than half the average precipitation during that period, and in Devon and Dorset, some locations received no rainfall for 45 consecutive days through July and August.

In 1995, a dry winter in the Pennines saw reservoir levels in Yorkshire fall to exceptionally low levels, resulting in tanker trucks being used to bring water from Northumbria.

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Euston Reservoir in Suffolk

The reservoir of Euston Estate farm in Suffolk is severely depleted (Image: GETTY)

During the summer of 2003, temperatures in excess of 38C (100F) were recorded for the first time as the UK sweltered amidst a Europe-wide heatwave and rainfall totals were at their third-lowest since 1900.

Worst affected was Tayside in Scotland, where two consecutive drought orders were granted during 2004 to allow reservoir levels to recover.

In 2006, 16 million people across Southern England faced hosepipe bans as three water companies were granted powers to restrict non-essential use.

The UK’s most recent drought occurred between 2010 and 2012, when the east of England suffered critically low river flows and groundwater levels as the west of the country was mostly unaffected.

Drought responses in England are overseen by the Environment Agency in coordination with individual water companies.

The typical response is the restriction of non-essential water use in the form of hosepipe bans for specific regions.

In the hopes of avoiding the situation in Northend in Oxfordshire on Wednesday where residents ran out of water, hosepipe bans imposed over the next few days could see up to 33 million people forced to ration their usage.

Southern Water has already implemented a ban in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, and South East Water has announced a ban throughout Kent and Sussex from Friday.

Upon meeting with water company chief executives on Wednesday, Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “Each company has a pre-agreed drought plan which they are following, and I have urged them to take any precautionary steps needed to protect essential supplies as we go into a likely very dry autumn.”

Today it was announced that eight of the Environment Agencies 14 areas in England were experiencing a drought: 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.

Skelton crop fire August 11

The dry conditions led to a large crop fire in Skelton, North Yorkshire yesterday (Image: GETTY)

The World Meteorological Organisation, the UN’s weather agency, confirmed this July was Europe’s sixth warmest on record, as dangerously low water levels in the River Rhine threaten the Continent’s main economic artery.

Although there is no proven direct link between drought and climate change, there is a consensus among the scientific community that temperatures are increasing and rainfall patterns are being altered as a result.

In 2019 the Environment Agency, taking into account population growth projections and the impact of climate change, anticipates England’s demand for water exceeding its supply by around the year 2045.

For now, the next wave of heavy rainfall isn’t expected until the weekend of August 20, after which more average conditions for the time of year are predicted.



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