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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 October, 2003, 20:04 GMT 21:04 UK
Q&A: The UK's looming water crisis

With so little rain falling in the last few months, many parts of the UK are now facing the prospect of major water shortages.

BBC environment correspondent Sarah Mukherjee takes a closer look at the problem.

Why are we suddenly heading for a water crisis?

Figures from the BBC Weather Unit show the rain pattern has been mixed. Rainfall was above average across England and Wales for May, June and July, but any benefits we gained from those wet spells have almost literally evaporated.

It has been the second driest January to October in England and Wales since records began in 1776, with just 490.7 millimetres (about 19 inches) of rain this year so far. Regionally, the South and East have been exceptionally badly hit.

Farmers say they could lose thousands of pounds as crops like winter oilseed rape have either not germinated because of the lack of rain or germinated and then died back. One told me that it was an argument for genetic modification - he would be delighted to grow drought-resistant GM crops, he said.

What are the water authorities saying?

Water companies in the South and East are so concerned that they have issued a joint plea to their customers to cut back on water use. Southern Water's largest reservoir, Bewl Water, is currently only half full (when it should be at 80% capacity) and the Darwell Reservoir, which serves the Hastings area, is only 30% full. This is just half of what Darwell would normally contain at this time of year.

Take a shower instead of a bath
Wash your car with a bucket instead of a hose
Use your washing machine only when you have a full load
Fit a water-saving device in your toilet cistern - available free from your local water company
Officials at Folkestone and Dover Water Services say they are entirely reliant on underground water sources in the chalk and shingle of South Kent for its supplies - but several local streams have stopped flowing.

A spokesman for the Environment Agency, the main public body responsible for protecting the environment, said river flows had been declining all through the summer.

At this time of the year, he said we would normally be expecting to prepare for floods.

In the West country and in Wales, he added, river flows were a fraction of what would be expected and groundwater levels in parts of the South and East were approaching their lowest ever recorded.

Why are the warnings only just coming out?

The water companies say they are in a much better position this year because they have learned their lessons from their failure to manage previous droughts properly.

Weather forecasters say that this week we have had the first significant rain for some months, and so the situation could change for the better in the coming days.

Environment Agency officials certainly believe the next few weeks will be crucial and while there are no water restrictions at the moment, they say we should perhaps start behaving as if there are.

They advise we try to reduce the 160 litres (35 gallons) a day all of us, on average, use.

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