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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 October 2006, 13:56 GMT 14:56 UK
What happened to the drought?
Mud flats at Wallasea Island in Essex in July 2006

By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine

It filled acres of column inches in the newspapers and on the net, and hours of air time on the television and radio - Britain's worst drought for almost 100 years.

The official statistics were frightening: the South East has less water per person than the desert states of Syria and Sudan, while the rest of the country has less than the whole of Europe, apart from Belgium and Cyprus.

There was a real sense of emergency, it was going to be 1976 all over again. People were told they faced having standpipes in the streets and nearly 13 million of us were banned from using hosepipes.

A burst water main
People trust the evidence of their eyes, they are told of water shortages but see the burst water main near where they live
Dr William Acker

But the standpipes never materialised and, just a few months on, parks and gardens are looking green and fresh again. So what happened to the drought?

We're still in it, according to the experts, and have been for nearly two years in southern England. Since November 2004, rainfall below the long term average for 1961 to 1990 has been recorded in 18 out of 22 months.

But speculation about standpipes was media driven and got "out of control", says Barrie Clarke of Water UK, the umbrella group for all water companies.

"No water company ever said we might end up with standpipes in the streets, they never even came close to talking about it among themselves," he says.

"Standpipes are just one thing included in Drought Orders, and even then are a real last resort. I understand that line probably makes the best headline for the newspapers, but it just wasn't the case.


"I think the public understand these stories are all about attracting attention and take them with a pinch of salt."

But what about the message behind those headlines, if we were experiencing the country's worst drought for almost 100 years why was there no serious disruption to most people's daily lives?

Sure, nearly 13 million people were banned from using a hosepipe, but they could still wash their cars or water their gardens using a bucket or a watering can. Only one water company used a Drought Order to ban non-essential use of water and even then it only affected places like golf courses.

Borehole graphic

"The fact that people's everyday lives weren't disrupted is down to good planning, not the situation being blown out of proportion by water companies," says Mr Clarke.

"The drought is very, very serious. In some areas water is at historically low levels - it's never been as low - but every company has a drought plan and is well placed to deal with the problems. The hosepipe bans were the first for 10 years, we regret them, but it's not bad going considering the situation."

Did the hosepipe bans work? Yes, they resulted in a 15% reduction in water usage in the areas where they were imposed, according to Water UK. There was even a 10% reduction in areas without restrictions.

The industry is so pleased the ubiquitous comparison statistics are even being touted around. Enough water was saved in the Thames Water region last month - 176 million litres - to fill the Albert Hall, apparently.


"Irrespective of what people think about the drought or water companies, they have been saving water," says Jacob Tompkins, director of pressure group Waterwise.

"This is a huge response, it shows that people understand the message we have tried to get across."

So what of the water companies? This summer's drought stories were often placed alongside those about how much water is wasted through leaking pipes. Thames Water, with eight million customers, was reported to be the country's most wasteful water firm, losing roughly 864 million litres every day through leaks.

The Daily Mail
July was a scorcher

Introducing hosepipe bans while water is haemorrhaging at such a fast rate through leakages cannot do much for public confidence in the industry, surely?

Some suspect that it is talking up the drought to distract attention fromits own failings, and to persuade domestic consumers into frugality. A measure which helps ensure adequate supplies for the water companies' commercial customers, according to meteorologist Philip Eden.

"People trust the evidence of their eyes," says psychologist Dr William Acker. "They are told of water shortages but see the burst water main near where they live. That does have an effect on public trust.

"But it is wider than just that, the public have a distrust of authority in general. The water industry has been privatised and profits are being made, water isn't owned by the people anymore but mainly by foreign companies.

"However, assumptions that this is somehow worse for the public can be false as quite often public services are run for civil servants and not the people."

The water industry itself admits to having a bit of a PR problem, but it pre-dates this summer by a long time and seems not to have hampered its message about more efficient usage.


"People are not keen on water companies and probably never will be," says Mr Tompkins. "They think water is a right, that it falls from the sky, is free but water companies charge them for it. But irrespective of what they think of the companies, they are still saving water."

So, what of the future? Recent heavy showers have helped mask the situation, but the drought is ongoing say the Environment Agency and the industry.

Fill a kettle: one
Fill a watering can: five
Flush a toilet: nine
Have a shower: 30-50
Use a dishwasher: 25-60
Fill a bath: 80
Do laundry: 70-120

The rain has helped rivers and reservoirs to recover but has had little effect on the aquifers - underground water held in porous rocks - which provide 70% of public water supply in the South East.

They can only recharge when the soil above is soaked allowing rainwater to trickle deep down. But the scorching temperatures in June and July baked the ground and it will take twice the average winter rainfall to filter down and make an impact on water levels, warns the industry.

The Met Office had been predicting rain well above average during the winter months, but recently revised this and is now forecasting typical winter rainfall. As a result hosepipe restrictions are unlikely be lifted in many areas. It is too soon and it might also send out the wrong signal that the drought is over, says the industry.

So it's hosepipe bans for the foreseeable future and continue turning off the tap when you brush your teeth.

I am lucky enough to have a stream flow through my garden. Only there hasn't been much flow this year. Or last year. It normally flows 52 weeks per year. It dried up Spring 2005 and didn't have any water until November. It dried up again this spring and is still empty. My family have lived in the same house since 1981 - and the stream has not been dry for so long during the last 25 years.
Andrew, Hampshire

Why don't the water companies install meters ? Most of us look at how much gas or electric we use and budget accordingly. If the same was said of water I think the drop in usage would be dramatic. Why not pay for what you use most other developed countries do
andrew edgecock, london

When water company bosses are seen taking huge bonus payments rather than re-investing profits in the infrastructure to reduce leakage and boost consumer confidence is it any wonder consumer confidence is so low? I think not.
Jason Brown, Wales/Flintshire

So Thames water are losing 196 million gallons a day, i.e. 5.9 billion gallons a month but managed to save 38 million gallons in a month by imposing a hosepipe ban, well done them, 0.6% saving of their own losses I'm so impressed.
Martin Burley, Nottingham

I agree with the comments by Dr William Acker, that we will not beleive that there is a problem until water companies do something about the leaks in the pipes. People will think, what's the point turning off the tap when i brusgh my teeth when Thames ater are wasting millions of times the quanity of water that I can save. Plus, becasue water companies make millions of pounds profit, we will always think that the problem belongs with them, not with us.
Iain Stephenson, Romsey England

For as long as the water companies continue to lose close to one billion litres of water per day through sloppy maintenance in order to pay themselves and their shareholders handsome profits, I shall continue to ignore all drought warnings.
Hans Schreuder, Ipswich, UK

let me see now,,,you fill in resevoirs,,,so no where to store water,,,then you cover all the ground with concrete and houses,,,householders use water ,,oops,,,all rainwater goes dowm drains and pipes never to be seen again,,,let me see now,,hmm
kenny burnett, Borehamwood,herts

Why should an elite group of shareholders profit from resources we all need to survive and cannot do without? Gas, electricity, water? Theres something fundamentally wrong with that in my opinion. With better investment in infrastructure the water companies could preserve existing supplies and find new ways of collecting rainfall. Hot countries dont have standpipes. But that would eat into profits wouldnt it.
Peter, London UK

I never turn the tap on when I brush my teeth. My car is washed once a year- when it is serviced. I shower and don't take long sudsey baths- although of course then I could use the water to save the trees in my garden. So why- after 5 calls from me and two from my husband- has our water board still not fixed a leak just down the road from us- and which has been leaking for well over 6 months?
Jackie, Wokingham

The low ground water level has been obvious for months, a ditch which normally fills during the winter was bone dry last April. Now a pond which I have never seen empty is also waterless when it is normally five feet deep.
Brian W, Chelmsford, England

Am I reading this right - from the figures in the report, consumers saved 176 million litres in the Thames Water area last month - and yet 150 times that amount was lost, in the same area, through leaks in the same period!
Ian Mc, Doncaster

I live in one of the worst areas for water shortage, and have had awater meter fitted some time ago, it has definately made me save water,and it has saved money as you only pay for what you use.It hasmade me very careful not to waste water.
Valerie, Littlehampton West Sussex

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