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A strategic programme for NERC Lowland catchment research
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The water crisis in southern Britain

A rising population, more households and greater wealth have led to an ever greater demand for water, putting the limited supply in the south of England under stress.

Farm on Chalk downlands

Thames Water, which is responsible for delivering water to London and much of south-east England, expects the number of households in its area to increase by 200,000 over the next ten years, with the population increasing by 800,000. Added to this, on average, each customer is also steadily using more water, creating a further new demand. Increasing demand for water puts pressure on the environment. Water companies could meet the demand by extracting more from rivers, but then the rivers would dry up – damaging the local ecology and environment.  More about different perspectives on water resources

How will this demand be met? The south-east of England has a relatively low rainfall and probably 70 per cent of this is lost to evaporation by the crops and woods which cover the landscape. The remaining 30 per cent has to replenish our reservoirs and aquifers, and sustain our rivers and wetlands.

The region is quite resilient to summer droughts because of the water stored underground, but water supply during the summer is vulnerable to dry winters. If winter rainfall is not sufficient to refill the aquifers and reservoirs, the water supply is at risk the following summer. The drought orders imposed on the south-east of England during the summer of 2006 was a case in point. The area relies heavily on groundwater but because of the dry winter of 2005-2006 groundwater levels were at record lows and all non-essential water use had to be banned.

This combination of increasing demand and limited supply will inevitably lead to water shortages. To avoid a crisis in the future requires action now: new policies, based on sound science, are needed for planning, regulating and managing the region’s water resources.