A prolonged dry spell of weather across parts of England has led experts to warn of a possible drought during 2012. This may come as a surprise to many, especially since the last five summers have been labelled as wash-outs: 2007, 2008, 2009 and August 2010 were wetter than normal, 2007 being wettest on record. However, since September 2009 there have only been a hand-full of months when the rainfall was average or above-average in parts of England, and 2011 was the driest year in England and Wales for 90 years.
The persistent lack of rainfall is already causing problems: the Kennet and Avon Canal has been shut due to the lowest water levels in 90 years; the Colne, Nene and Trent rivers were at record low levels in November; and Anglian Water has been issued with a drought permit allowing it to refill two of its reservoirs from rivers. British Waterways said low ground water levels would be a long-term problem as it would take some time to recover. The Environment Agency's website details that Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire, parts of Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, and west Norfolk are still in drought; Shropshire, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, East Sussex and Kent are still affected by dry weather; and in the Anglian region groundwater levels remain exceptionally low. Soils in these areas are still not wet enough for widespread recharge to take place.
The impending crisis – which could have widespread consequences for farmers, food production, tourism, industry and domestic life – has been building for the past 2 years. Andrew Chapman, a senior environment planning officer with the agency said "The position is becoming very serious. In simple terms, unless we get a downpour that lasts for several weeks in the very near future, we are in trouble. There could be severe water shortages in many parts of the country."
This winter is likely to be the driest winter on record, although there are still two weeks of February to go. The crucial point is that boreholes and reservoirs are now at "notably low" or "exceptionally low" levels. This is particularly worrying for farmers who, at this time of year, build storage lagoons to hold water that they can use later in the year to irrigate crops. Farmers have to be given permits by the Environment Agency to be allowed to dam up water that would otherwise flow into rivers. A severe lack of water will lead to drastic reductions in yield and this is exacerbated across East Anglia, one of Britain's principal food-producing regions.
To address the shortage of rainfall during 2011, the Environment Agency estimated that it would need 20% above average for the months from December last year to April this year. To date, the rains have been 30% below average.
England is no stranger to droughts with exceptionally low rainfall amounts in 1921, 1933, and 1964. However, the years with significant water shortages were also combined with high temperatures and heatwaves during the summer months, such as in 1911, 1955, and the infamous drought of 1976. Many will have one eye on the sky in hope of some steady rainfall, especially over the next few weeks.