How does England cope with drought?

Two dry winters mean the ‘green and pleasant land’ is facing water shortages.

Fly fishing in an English river – a classic image of rural England [GALLO/GETTY]

William Blake’s famous poem conjures up a typical picture of England as many recognise it:

And did those feet in ancient time,
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
…Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land

Leaving aside the religious imagery, Blake paints a vivid picture of a green, luxuriant countryside and hints at fleeting glimpses of sunshine penetrating shrouds of cloud.

The English, in general, complain bitterly about their weather: it is, to listen to them, always raining.                          

The reality is, actually, quite different. England is in the grip of a drought. Two, relatively dry, successive winters have left many reservoirs at very low levels.

With spring now upon us, much of the rain that falls is likely to be taken up by growing vegetation and, as summer approaches, evaporation will account for most of any surplus.

The Environment Agency is responsible for water management in England. It says that even average rainfall during the coming spring months (March to May) would be insufficient to lift the country out of the drought which is currently affecting much of central, eastern and southeastern England.

In fact, England has seen significant drought in the not-too-distant past. In 1975 and 1976 dry winters were followed by hot and sunny summers. Drinking water was rationed in some areas and the newly appointed Minister for Drought, Denis Howell, was advising people to ‘share baths’.

Fortunately, within three days of his appointment, the fine weather broke and he was quickly reappointed as Minister for Floods. (Mr. Howell later added to his weather portfolio by becoming Minister for Snow during the harsh winter of 1979.)

Drought struck as recently as 2006 when hosepipe bans were in force across southern England and three water companies were granted powers to restrict non-essential use.

The drought of 2006 at Weir Wood, East Grinstead [GALLO/GETTY]

The demand for water has changed since the mid-1970s. The decline in manufacturing industry has meant a reduction in demand from this sector and many domestic and commercial customers pay directly for what they use through metering.

On the other hand, there are more domestic appliances which consume water, such as dishwashers and washing machines. The population of the UK has also increased significantly, up from 56 million to 62 million.

Climate change predicts that the rainfall patterns will become increasingly erratic with drier summers and wetter winters. One idea that has been suggested is to transport water from the wetter parts of the country.

In fact, this is not a new idea. It has been considered, and dismissed, largely on the grounds of cost, on several occasions.

In the summer of 2011, the idea was revisited by London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson. He wrote in The Daily Telegraph, “The rain it raineth on the just and the unjust, says the Bible, but frankly it raineth a lot more in Scotland and Wales than it doth in England.”

London’s Mayor is advocating a water pipeline [GALLO/GETTY]

Whilst that may be true, and water levels in the other parts of the United Kingdom are far from critical, current proposals seem to be restricted to transportation of water within England. This may have much to do with concerns over future independence for England’s near neighbours.

The latest plan comes from United Utilities which plans to build a $4.1 billion pipeline from Birmingham to London. The plan is due to go before Members of Parliament within the next few weeks.

Whatever the long-term solutions to England’s water supplies, you can be sure that most of the country’s inhabitants will be complaining about the weather whether it is too wet, or too dry.

Source: Al Jazeera