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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 February 2006, 08:37 GMT
North-south split in water levels
By James Clarke
BBC News, England

South East Water's drought poster
South East Water issued a 'wanted' poster to ask for help saving water
The South East has had such low rainfall over the past year it is dangerously low on water when most of England has no real shortage at all.

The region has had below-average rainfall 14 months in a row, with water companies in Kent, Sussex and London appointing drought planning teams.

But areas in the North and West have had no such problems.

The Environment Agency said the contrast was solely down to the regional difference in rainfall levels.

The Consumer Council For Water backed those claims, agreeing that outside of the South East, East Anglia and parts of central England there were no real problems.

'Driest since 1920s'

Last month was the driest January since 1997 across England and Wales.

But the general trend since the end of 2004 has been for the South East, East Anglia and central Southern England to receive far less rain than other parts of the UK.

While the South East has had only about 40% of its average rainfall over the winter, some regions have had more rain than they would normally expect to get.

Bewl Water Reservoir on the Kent/ Sussex border, less than 40% full during January 2006

Lisa Beechey, of the Environment Agency, said: "We are really focusing on the South East.

"The last 15 months have been the driest period since the 1976 drought, but there are some areas where it has been the driest since the 1920s.

"The rest of England and Wales has had at least close-to-average rainfall. If below-average rain continues across the next few months you might see localised problems, but the South East is where the environmental impact is."

Environment Agency figures showed in the first week of February most of England and Wales received less than 10% of the average February rainfall.

Southern England received about 4% of the average.

Its data also showed the River Thames at Kingston had flows that were only 28% of the average for this time of year, with other rivers in the South East also close to their lowest ever recorded levels.

England is quite dry, people think it rains all the time here but it's a dry country
Susan Adams, Consumer Council For Water

Ms Beechey said as well as the problems caused to the public by the shortage of water, the drought was "definitely impacting on the environment".

She said: "When the drought finally ends, we could be looking at quite a few years, with at least average rainfall, before things could return to normal.

"If fish populations have been affected, it could take years before numbers get back up.

"For example with the low river levels over winter, the salmon population in the Hampshire Avon failed to reach their normal spawning area - they weren't able to get to some parts of the river.

Weir Wood Reservoir in West Sussex photographed by a BBC News website user in July 2004 and July 2005, showing a dramatic drop in water levels
Images of Weir Wood Reservoir a year apart show how water levels fell

"Some plants that are used to living in mostly wet environments could die and be replaced by weeds and low river levels usually result in an increase in silt, which can block rivers."

Figures from water supplier Mid Kent Water show people in the South East use about 15 litres of water each per day more than people in the North East, which the water firm thinks is partly due to there being more people living on their own in the South East.

The fact the region is densely populated in comparison with some parts of the country means even more water is used.

Leaking pipes

Susan Adams, of the Consumer Council For Water, said: "People do use more water in the South East but it's down to the weather as well, it's been very dry in that area.

"England is quite dry, people think it rains all the time here but it's a dry country."

But while England may be a dry country, some parts are drier than others.

James Perowne, Midlands region chairman of the Consumer Council for Water, said: "The West, North West and Scotland have had a very wet winter.

A garden sprinkler
The average garden sprinkler uses over 1,000 litres of water an hour

"And Wales, where Birmingham gets its water from, has had more than its fair share of water this winter.

"If people are sensible we won't have a problem in the Midlands.

"Despite having a drier than average winter in the east of the region there really should be no water shortage this summer."

Knowing that water is becoming a scarce resource, water firms, particularly those in the drought-hit South East, are trying to limit the amount wasted.

Several firms in the South East imposed hosepipe bans in 2005, the first in the UK for nine years. Southern Water, South East Water and Mid Kent Water still have bans in place.

Attempts are being made to encourage developers building new homes to take economical water use into account.

And firms have reduced the amount of water lost through leaking pipes.

Thames Water replaced Victorian mains in West Brompton in west London with seven miles of new plastic pipes at a cost of 5.3m.

It claims the work has saved 1.7m litres of water a day - enough to supply more than 10,500 people - and has reduced the number of burst pipes in nearby houses.

Drought-hit region needing water
21 Feb 06 |  England
Bid to save lake fish population
04 Sep 05 |  Southern Counties
High and dry
08 Jun 05 |  Magazine


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