Millions of people in London and the south-east of England face the prospect of a hosepipe ban, as Thames Water on Tuesday became the fourth company to announce restrictions because of unusually hot and dry conditions.
The UK’s biggest water group, which serves about 15mn customers, said it would announce a temporary use ban “in the coming weeks” given the long-term forecast for continued dry weather and the heatwave expected this week. The exact timing of the ban — and the number of people it will affect — have yet to be confirmed.
Last month was the driest July in England since 1935, and the Environment Agency last week warned that if the dry conditions continued “many parts of England will move into drought”.
The announcement by Thames Water comes a day after the government issued an amber heat warning for much of England, the second-highest level possible, which indicates the need to prepare for a heatwave and potential risks to public health.
Temperatures could this week reach the mid-30Cs in the south, according to the Met Office, Britain’s national weather and climate service, though they are not expected to exceed the record high of 40.3C set last month in Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
The National Drought Group — which brings together the Environment Agency, government, water companies, the National Farmers’ Union and industry and environmental groups — is due to meet this week. Last month it urged people to “use water wisely”.
Southern Water, South East Water and Welsh Water have all announced temporary hosepipe bans, which will affect roughly 2.4mn people across England and Wales once they take effect.
Thames Water said details of its ban had yet to be confirmed “due to a number of operational and legal procedural requirements” and that they would be announced “at a later date”. The company added that it was in the meantime urging customers to limit water usage.
The series of hosepipe bans is the result of a prolonged period of hot and dry weather, which has depleted reservoir and river levels and increased households’ demand for water. Thames Water last week said demand had recently been at the highest level in more than 25 years while supplies had been lower than usual.
Hannah Cloke, professor of hydrology at Reading university, said that “while there are different definitions of drought, we are clearly facing drought conditions in many parts of England”.
“Water levels in several major river systems are very low. Some upper parts of rivers, including the Thames, have dried up almost completely,” she added.
Environment secretary George Eustice on Sunday urged more companies to introduce bans “to protect and preserve our water supplies during this exceptionally dry period”, but the decision to do so rests with individual water groups rather than ministers.
Thames Water’s drought plan includes the use of its desalination facility, which removes salt from water, in east London when supplies are more constrained than normal. But the company this month said the facility was out of service and would not be operational until next year.
“Our teams are working as fast as possible to get it ready for use early next year, to achieve protection to our supplies if we were to have another dry winter,” it added.