Droughts could be declared in “quite a few regions” of the country tomorrow, a source from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has told Sky News.
The news contradicts earlier suggestions that a drought would only be declared in the South West.
The drought declaration is not expected to cover the whole country, a source added.
It will mean residents affected can expect to see a series of restrictions on domestic and commercial use of water – including hosepipe bans depending on local arrangements.
Much of the country is currently experiencing extreme heat and little rainfall, after the start of a four-day amber extreme heat warning, below normal levels in waterways, and England’s driest July since 1935 during which the temperature rose above 40C for the first time.
There is no single definition for drought – so while it is caused by a period of low rainfall, each is different, with the nature, timing and impacts varying according to location and which sectors are affected such as public water supply, agriculture, the environment or industry.
The Environment Agency’s National Drought Group gets together and looks at statistics including rainfall, how much water is left in rivers, reservoirs and lakes, as well as temperature forecasts over the coming weeks to decide whether drought conditions have been reached.
No specific targets need to be reached – they just decide whether all these factors together constitute a drought, and they can give an indication of how severe and long-lasting it will be.
The Environment Agency then decides whether to signal a drought or severe drought.
There are four stages of drought:
• Prolonged dry weather stage (yellow) – where the possible impacts include a heightened risk of environmental damage such as a risk to wildlife and plants
• Drought stage (amber) – stress on public and private water supply sources, reduced agricultural and horticultural crop yields, localised wildfires and long term habitat and wildlife impacts
• Severe drought stage (red) – widespread long term environmental damage, widespread wildfires, failure of crops or plants and shortage of fodder and drinking water for livestock, failure of public and private water supplies
• Recovering drought stage (amber) – which depends on the type and severity of the preceding drought
The two most recent droughts were declared in 2018 and a more severe one in 2011.
The first heatwave earlier this year and the driest July on record in parts of the country have already seen England’s drought level increased to the “prolonged dry weather stage”.
This means there is a short-term risk to wildlife, plants and crops, and drought plans are being enacted by water companies.
At the most severe stage, private and public water supplies would be at risk and restrictions would be imposed.
At present, Southern Water has imposed a hosepipe ban on customers in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.
Temporary restrictions on water use are also due to come into force for South East Water customers in Kent and Sussex from Friday, with similar rules announced by Welsh Water for Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire later this month.
And Thames Water has signalled it will introduce a hosepipe ban in the coming weeks as the hot, parched summer continues to take its toll.
Almost all of the UK received below-average rainfall in July, with the exception of the far north of Scotland.
The latest weather forecast has the UK on track for hotter than normal conditions and a heatwave pushing temperatures into the mid-30s in some areas this week, triggering health alerts.
And it is not just the UK that is affected. There are fears further dry weather forecasts for many countries across Europe for this month and next will exacerbate the already critical situation and impact on agriculture, energy and water supply.
Almost half of European Union land is currently under a drought warning or in the most severe “alert” status.
Scientists say the likelihood of droughts occurring is becoming higher due to climate change, driven by greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels and other human activities.