London teeters on water rationing if drought persists

Lawns crossing British Gardens at Kew, home to the largest collection of living plants in the world, have turned yellow. Amid one of the hottest and driest summers on record, gardeners at the south-west London tourist attraction are carefully choosing how and when to irrigate thousands of species of plants and trees that attract more than one million visitors per year. On Woody Hampstead Heath, a park north of the city, staff have fenced off a number of trees to protect them from the risk of fire.

Across London – and most of England – this summer’s unprecedented heat has pushed plant life, infrastructure and people to the limit. Green leaves fall before fall. The dead grass crunches as you walk through the park. Sometimes there was a feeling of desert in the air. High temperatures have also sparked fires near London. Train operators have triggered warnings about buckling railway lines. Gas pipelines have reduced production due to high temperatures.

Dry meadow on Hampstead Heath in London, July 13. Photographer: Chris Gorman/Getty Images

“The color of the grass is kind of a good barometer of how much rain has been recently,” said Barnaby Dobson, associate researcher in community water management for a Liveable London project at Imperial College London.

It has been weeks since there has been significant rainfall in London. Lack of water is becoming an odd concern for a city and country where wet weather was once as iconic as Big Ben. It’s also another indicator that the UK’s climate is changing after thermometers topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the first time in July.

Outside the capital, water restrictions are in place. Southern Water will enforce the first garden hose ban in south-east England in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight on Friday. This means that if residents want to irrigate their garden, they will have to use conservative methods such as watering cans or risk a fine of up to £1,000. South East Water Ltd. will impose a similar ban on customers in Kent and Sussex from August 12.

The egregious scenes across London raise questions as to whether the capital is next to declare a drought. That decision will rest with Thames Water Utilities Ltd., responsible for London’s water supply. The company said it was ready to implement water use restrictions if the unusually long drought streak continues. It currently has a “statutory drought plan” in place, detailing a plethora of actions it would take as the situation worsens.

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“We know that the water we have stored in our reservoirs will continue to decline, so if we do not receive near or above average rainfall in the coming months, it will increase the pressure on our resources and could indeed cause the need for more water-saving measures, including restrictions,” a Thames Water spokesperson said in an email.

Still, a garden hose ban in London is unlikely in the immediate future. While most would agree that London is in a climatic drought – just look at the yellow grass – it would take extremely low reservoir levels for a so-called water resources drought. This is the kind that Thames Water cares about.

A gardener waters a fenced section of grass in London’s Greenwich Park on August 3. Photographer: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

For now, the capital’s large reservoirs, which can supply the city for hundreds of days, are currently at “very comfortable levels”, according to Dobson. London’s reservoirs were 91% full at the end of June, before the heatwave, already below average for the time of year, but still far from any prospect of a ban.

Water rationing is a measure of last resort that would only come after awareness campaigns and the banning of garden hoses. Even though it’s on the table, water companies are generally reluctant to trigger a backlash from consumers. 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 contain water. They could also convince the UK Environment Agency to let them take more water from the river to avoid any type of rationing – although this risks depleting resources and other environmental problems, said Dobson.

Rainfall is lagging behind, with England recording the driest July in 87 years amid scorching and deadly heat. According to a preliminary analysis, there may have been 844 more deaths in England and Wales during last month’s heatwave. The Met Office expects temperatures to rise again next week, with parts of the south hitting 30 degrees Celsius.

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While, by definition, a drought is caused by a period of low rainfall, its impact on people, the environment, agriculture and business varies. Some droughts are short and intense. For example, it may be a single hot, dry summer. Others are long and take time to develop over several seasons.

Visitors walk on dry grassland at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London Photographer: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

The Environment Agency would be responsible for declaring a nationwide drought. Still, Dobson said that since the privatization of water companies in the late 1980s, droughts are usually reported on an area-by-area basis. There have been severe droughts in the UK before – the most recent in 2018-2019 – but none more dramatic than that of 1976. Then 16 months of exceptionally dry weather meant that there was no not rained enough for tanks to capture and store supplies. . It got so bad that people had to queue for water in the street.

Across Europe this year, drought has dried up rivers and decimated crops. The situation forced Italy to declare a national emergency in July. The scorching heat is a stark reminder of the ongoing climate crisis. Heat waves are becoming more frequent and intense, and extreme temperatures are expected to become more common.

“Unfortunately, climate models and forecasts indicate that these extreme weather conditions could well become the norm over the next 50 years,” said Richard Barley, Garden Manager at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

This means that visitors to Kew Gardens, which stretch over a kilometer wide, may have to get used to seeing parched lawns, which rely solely on rainwater to survive.

“Our priority right now is to safeguard plants in living collections that have high conservation value or historical significance,” he said. “Botanic gardens around the world are already having to adapt their landscape management strategies to these new conditions. Kew is no exception.

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