How the UK’s droughts compare with the rest of the world

UN warns that ‘land is drying up’ in countries across the globe

Low water levels at Baitings Reservoir in West Yorkshire
Low water levels at Baitings Reservoir in West Yorkshire have revealed an ancient bridge
(Image credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

After months of dry weather a drought has been officially declared in parts of southern, central and eastern England.

The National Drought Group, which includes government and environmental agency officials, made the announcement today as the heatwave continues and temperatures are forecast to rise further this weekend.

Yorkshire Water became the fifth company to implement a hosepipe ban, its first since 1996.

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Scientists fear the “dry spell” could persist well into the autumn, said The Times. “New data shows that reservoirs in England and Wales are at their lowest levels for this time of year since modern records began 30 years ago,” the paper added.

Declaring drought status means the Environment Agency and water companies are likely to put into action further plans to manage the impact of low water levels.

Across the Channel

The last time a drought was declared in the UK was 2018, and before that there was “a more severe one” in 2011, said Sky News. This time England is facing the driest first half of the year since 1976.

“It is not just the UK that is affected,” added Sky News. “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.”

Water restrictions have been imposed across nearly all of France’s 96 mainland regions, which is a “record”, said France 24, noting that “water companies on both sides of the Channel are struggling to respond to the parched conditions”.

Sky News said almost half of EU land is under a drought warning or is at the most severe “alert” status.

Further afield

In the US, “severe to extreme drought” affected around a third of the lower 48 states last month, according to the Palmer Drought Index.

And an estimated 55 million people are directly affected by droughts across the world every year, with Africa the worst-affected continent for severity, said a UN report published in May.

“Throughout the world, people are feeling the impacts of the climate and environmental crises most strongly through water: the land is drying up, fertile grounds are turning to dust and drought is prevailing,” said Ibrahim Thiaw, executive secretary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification.

The report, Drought in Numbers 2022, said that the number and duration of droughts has increased by 29% since 2000, compared to the two previous decades, and that they were responsible for approximately 650,000 deaths between 1970 to 2019, the vast majority of which were in developing countries.

Countries including Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq have also faced drought emergencies in the past two years.

More droughts forecast

Back home, the UK has a “reputation for being a rainy country” but it has “experienced regular periods of drought in the past”, said Wilson Chan, Nigel Arnell and Ted Shepherd, climate change scientists from the University of Reading. Writing for The Conversation, they warned that the latest set of simulations “project hotter and drier summers plus warmer and wetter winters, with larger changes in summer compared to winter rainfall” for the country.

“Droughts will have major implications for the country’s national food strategy, its nature recovery targets and – critically – progress towards net zero emissions, which will be essential for bringing extreme weather under control,” they concluded.

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