London teeters on water rationing if drought persists

The lawns that crisscross Britain’s Kew Gardens, home to the world’s largest collection of living plants, have turned yellow. In the midst of one of the hottest and driest summers on record, gardeners at the south-west London tourist attraction are choosing carefully how and when to water thousands of species of plants and trees that attract more than a million visitors a year. Over on wooded Hampstead Heath, a park in the north of the city, staff have fenced off a number of trees to protect them from the risk of fire.

Across London – and most of England – the unprecedented heat this summer has pushed plant life, infrastructure and residents to the brink. Green leaves fall ahead of autumn. Dead grass crunches as you walk across the park. At times there has been a desert-like feeling in the air. High temperatures have also sparked fires near London. Train operators have issued warnings about kinks on railway lines. Gas pipelines have reduced production due to high temperatures.

Dry grassland on Hampstead Heath in London, on July 13. Photographer: Chris Gorman/Getty Images

“The color of the grass is kind of a good barometer of how much it’s rained recently,” said Barnaby Dobson, a research fellow on Community Water Management for a Liveable London project at Imperial College London.

It has been weeks since there has been significant rainfall in London. Running out of water is becoming an odd concern for a city and country where rain used to be as much of an emblem as Big Ben. It is also another indicator that Britain’s climate is changing after thermometers topped 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the first time in July.

Outside the capital, water restrictions are put into effect. Southern Water will enforce the first hose ban in the south east of England on Friday in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. This means that if residents want to water their gardens, they must use conservative methods such as watering cans or potentially face a fine of up to £1,000. South East Water Ltd. will introduce a similar ban on customers in Kent and Sussex from August 12.

The stark scenes in London raise the question of whether the capital is next in line to declare a drought. That decision will be up to Thames Water Utilities Ltd., which is responsible for London’s water supply. The company said it is ready to implement water usage restrictions if the unusually long dry streak continues. It currently has a “statutory drought plan” in place that outlines a plethora of actions it would take as the situation worsens.

“We know that the water we have stored in our reservoirs will continue to reduce, so if we do not get around or above average rainfall in the coming months, this will increase the pressure on our resources and may actually result in the need for more water saving measures including restrictions,” a Thames Water spokesman said in an email.

Still, a snake ban in London is unlikely in the near future. While most would agree that London is in a climate drought – just look at the yellow grass – it would require critically low reservoir levels for a so-called water resource drought. This is the kind that Thames Water cares about.

A gardener waters a section of fenced grass in Greenwich Park in London on August 3. Photographer: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

For now, the capital’s large reservoirs, which can supply the city for hundreds of days, are currently at “very comfortable levels”, according to Dobson. Reservoirs in London were 91% full at the end of June, before the heat wave, which was already below average for the season, but still far from the prospect of a ban.

Water rationing is a last resort that would only come after awareness campaigns and snake bans. Even if it’s on the table, water companies are usually wary of triggering a consumer backlash. Utilities have other options, such as tapping aquifers — rock formations that hold groundwater — or old reservoirs that are no longer in use but still have some water in them. They could also convince the UK’s Environment Agency to let them take more water out of the river to avoid any kind of rationing – although that risks resource depletion and other environmental concerns, Dobson said.

Rainfall is lagging and England is recording its driest July in 87 years amid scorching and deadly heat. There may have been 844 excess deaths in England and Wales during last month’s heatwave, according to a preliminary analysis. The Met Office expects temperatures to rise again next week, with some areas in the south reaching 30 degrees Celsius.

While a drought is by definition caused by a period of low rainfall, its impact on people, the environment, agriculture and businesses varies. Some droughts are short and intense – for example, it could just be a hot, dry summer. Others are long and take time to develop over several seasons.

Visitors walk on dry grassland at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London Photographer: Jose Sarmento Matos/Bloomberg

The Environmental Protection Agency would be responsible for declaring a nationwide drought. Still, Dobson said that since water companies were privatized in the late 1980s, droughts are usually declared on an area-by-area basis. There have been severe droughts in Britain before – most recently in 2018-2019 – but none more dramatic than the one in 1976. Back then, 16 months of unusually dry weather meant there was not enough rain for reservoirs to capture and store supplies. It got so bad that people had to queue for water in the street.

Across Europe, this year’s drought has dried up rivers and decimated crops. The situation forced Italy to declare a national emergency in July. The scorching heat is a stark reminder of the unfolding climate crisis. Heat waves will become more frequent and intense, and extreme temperatures will become more common.

“Unfortunately, climate models and forecasts indicate that such extreme weather may well become the norm for the next 50 years,” said Richard Barley, director of gardens at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

This means visitors to Kew’s mile-wide stretch of garden may have to get used to seeing parched lawns that rely only on rainwater to survive.

“Our priority right now is to protect plants within the living collections that are of high conservation value or of historical importance,” he said. “Botanic gardens worldwide are already having to adapt their landscape management strategies to these new conditions. Kew is no exception.”

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