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Water Week Friday, 20 March, 1998, 18:11 GMT
The summer of '76
weather man
Weatherman Jack Scott shows the high pressure over Britain
Back in 1976 Britain was in the grip of what was thought to be worst drought of the century. The whole country was affected by water rationing as temperatures soared.

In August of that year a few drops of rain stopped play at Lords for a quarter of an hour - prompting the crowds to start cheering.

Standpipes and dirty cars

kettle
Thousands had to collect water from stand-pipes
Many householders in Wales and the west of England were left without tap water for much of the day when temperatures were frequently over 80C. Thousands of homes in Yorkshire and East Anglia had their water supply replaced by communal standpipes in the street.

Water restrictions on industry in the Midlands forced some companies to shorten their working week. As the soil in the bottom of reservoirs cracked and dried out gardeners everywhere were forbidden to use hose-pipes with strict penalties imposed on those who flouted the ban.

van
Vans patrolled the streets to make sure people were not using their hose-pipes
Having a dirty car suddenly became patriotic. People across the country were told to put bricks or plastic bags full of water in their toilet cisterns to cut down on the amount of water flushed away. They were also advised to use washing-up water to pour down the toilet instead of flushing. Everyone was told to bath in less than five inches of water and then re-use it to pour on the garden.

The drought was so severe that firemen were unable to put out forest fires raging across the New Forest and other areas in the South of England.

Power to the people

sign
The whole country was affected
Concerned citizens took it into their own hands to ensure that their neighbours enforced than ban. In September 1976 the Daily Telegraph reported that housewives in Surrey forced a nearby golf club to turn off its water sprinklers by keeping a constant vigil and harassing the groundsmen.

The government was so worried about the national shortage of water that it appointed a Cabinet Drought Committee and made the Sports Minister, Denis Howell, Minister in Charge of Drought Co-ordination. He warned Britain that unless consumption was cut by half then the country would face rationing until December.

It finally started to rain in October 1976 and Mr Howell rapidly became very unpopular for insisting that restrictions had to continue to apply until reservoir levels were back to normal.

1976 revisited?

Reservoirs dried out
Reservoirs dried out
The 1976 drought started in the September of the previous year, after an already dry summer. At the time it was the driest 16 month period in over 250 years.

However according to Met Office summer rainfall figures less water fell in the recent drought of 1995 (73mm) than in 1976 (76mm).

The year of 1995 was also both preceded and followed by drier than normal summers, while 1976 was followed by a year in which rainfall was higher than the average. In fact the 24 month period from April 1995 to March 1997 was the driest on record in parts of the south and east, beating the 1976 record.

Drought orders restricting water usage can be imposed by the government on a specific region on behalf of the water companies. Less drought orders were imposed in 1995 and 1996 combined than the 139 orders that were issued in 1976.

Water companies have said this is because they have improved their ability to meet water demands in the last 20 years.

Companies also promise to pay compensation to consumers if supplies are ever disrupted due to drought in the future.

See also:

20 Mar 98 | Water Week
20 Mar 98 | Water Week
20 Mar 98 | Water Week
Links to more Water Week stories are at the foot of the page.


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