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Water Week Monday, 23 March, 1998, 09:25 GMT
Where has all the water gone?
fishing
Drought has become commonplace in Britain, or at least it seems that way. Every summer hose pipe and sprinkler bans hit the headlines and outraged gardeners threaten to defy their water companies in an effort to keep their roses in full bloom.

And even though the country has just weathered floods and storms in a wetter than average winter, experts are already warning that it could be a very dry summer in some areas, if Britain does not get its fair share of April showers.

floods
Floods followed storms in January
According to experts at the Institute of Hydrology this is due to changing weather patterns in Britain over the last 10 years. Less rain has been falling in the summer and less is falling over the parts of the country that have the biggest population density.

Terry Marsh, who monitors Britain's water resources at the Institute of Hydrology in Oxfordshire, said: "In the UK as a whole rainfall over the last 10 years has been very close to average - it's just that the distribution has been very unusual." He said that similar changes also took place in Britain in the 1850s and 1930s.

"Unusual" trends

The definition of a drought in Britain is generally agreed by climate specialists to be a period of dry weather where rainfall has been less than 0.25mm for a period of at least 15 days.

The regions worst affected by dry weather include the Thames valley, the East Midlands and East Anglia. Some of these areas are still suffering the after effects of a prolonged drought from 1988 to 1992. At the moment ground water levels in parts of the Thames Valley are the lowest this century.

Experts predict that in the future Britain can expect much more of its rainfall during the winter months, with summer rainfall in the south east predicted to fall by eight per cent.

Global Warming?

umbrellas
Experts predict it will rain less in the south of England in the summer
Britain is also getting warmer. The rise in temperature in the last 10 years is so slight that it is unlikely to prompt millions to move north from the Mediterranean, but it has prompted mutterings of "global warming". In the southeast the temperature is predicted to rise by about 1C by 2020.

Experts do not yet know if long term climatic change is taking place in Britain but they are certainly not ruling it out. Mr Marsh said: "the combination of rainfall patterns and temperature in the past 10 years has no modern parallels, it would be unrealistic to assume that climate change was not occurring."

Anna Stanford, Climate Campaigner for Friends of the Earth said: "With climate change we can never be 100% sure that it is happening, but evidence does seem to be mounting."

She points to the high number of weather anomalies in Britain in the last few years. April 1995 to November 1997 was the driest 30 month period on record in the south of England. August last year was the hottest August for over 300 years. The year 1995 was the warmest year on record in the UK.

Extremes of weather are considered by some scientists to be consistent with predictions of climate change. Anna Stanford said that Britain's experiences are likely to be linked to the whole global warming process. On a global scale the 10 warmest years in the last 130 have all occurred in the 1980s and 1990s.

Top up that tan

sunbathers
Britain is getting warmer
Hotter summers and wetter winters might sound appealing as long as you are not a gardener, but there is a downside. A report commissioned for the Department of the Environment after the 1995 drought found that supplying water cost an extra 96m that year. Prices for fresh vegetables were around 30% higher because lack of water damaged crops.

However there was a considerable saving on fuel because of the mild winter. Sales of beer and wine increased too.

But if you were just relishing the idea of a chilled glass of wine in the sunshine, it is worth remembering that warmer weather in the future is also likely to lead to infestations of cockroaches, fleas, mites and blood sucking ticks.

See also:

20 Mar 98 | Water Week
20 Mar 98 | Water Week
20 Mar 98 | Water Week
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