UK droughts: what are they and why are they happening?
With temperatures on the rise, drought is becoming an increasing problem across the UK. It's important to know the short-term and long-term effects of drought and how they could affect you in the future.
Here’s a guide to droughts, why they happen, and why they can cause floods.
Last updated 5 July 2023
Drought, flooding, heatwaves, hurricanes - extreme weather events are happening more often and are putting more people in danger all over the world.
Across the UK and Europe in recent summers, like in 2022, we've seen weather like never before with heatwaves, flash floods, and drought in the space of a few weeks. With more life-changing storms and heatwaves likely over the coming years, we need to adapt. Let's take a closer look at flash floods and drought.
What is a drought?
A drought can happen when a long period of unusually low rainfall creates a shortage of water. There can be localised droughts, or they can affect the whole country.
Without normal levels of rainfall, reserve water levels start to fall and plants and crops can die. If the dry period continues, it can become a drought.
In the UK, the environmental agencies for Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England decide when we are in drought conditions. They work together with water companies to reduce the impact of drought on people in affected areas.,
When was the last drought in the UK?
Several areas in the UK were declared in drought in 2022 after a very dry and hot summer. In February 2033 the National Drought Group warned that England was "one hot, dry spell away from severe drought conditions".
Its chair John Leyland said: "While most water levels have returned to normal across much of the country, low rainfall in recent weeks highlights the importance of remaining vigilant.
"We cannot rely on the weather alone, which is why the Environment Agency, water companies, and our partners are taking action to ensure water resources are in the best possible position both for the summer and for future droughts."
UK heatwave level temperatures were met in June 2023, during a long spell of dry weather making the likelihood of droughts being declared more likely.
Government bodies that decide when drought conditions are met:
England - Environment Agency (EA)
Wales - Natural Resources Wales (NRW)
Northern Ireland - Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA)
Water companies will work with government bodies when a drought is declared and may bring in restrictions to water use.
"We cannot rely on the weather alone, which is why the Environment Agency, water companies and our partners are taking action to ensure water resources are in the best possible position both for the summer and for future droughts."
John Leyland, Chair of the National Drought Group
What are the causes of drought?
The main causes of drought are extreme heat and lack of rainfall.
In 2022, the UK experienced its warmest year on record, resulting in the tenth driest summer. Certain regions, such as East Anglia, received significantly less rainfall, making it the eighth driest year ever recorded in that area. These rising temperatures and drier conditions strain water supplies, leading to the declaration of drought in many parts of the UK.
While tracking the frequency of droughts is challenging, the MET Office has confirmed temperatures are increasing, making extreme weather events like heatwaves more likely.
Climate change may also play a role in the frequency of droughts we experience in the UK. A study by the Red Cross Climate Centre found the July 2022 heatwave in the UK was made ten times more likely due to climate change.
Speaking about the link between climate change the extreme weather events like drought in 2022, Dr Friederike Otto of Imperial College London, who leads the World Weather Attribution group, told BBC News: "Every little bit of warming really makes these types of events more likely and even hotter. Heatwaves are much more deadly than other extreme weather like floods and climate change is a game-changer for heatwaves."
"Heatwaves are much more deadly than other extreme weather like floods and climate change is a game-changer for heatwaves."
Dr Friederike Otto, Leader of the World Weather Attribution group
Why do droughts happen in the UK?
Periods of very dry weather and increased temperatures in the UK, place additional pressure on water companies to meet demand. People tend to use more water in hot weather - taking more showers, watering lawns and gardens, and cooling off in paddling pools.
This means water companies experience more demand, usually coinciding with periods when there hasn't been as much rainfall and reservoir levels may well have dropped considerably. The UK is also an increasing population, meaning there is more general demand to manage.
Can households run out of water?
Restrictions on how much water you can use and what purpose you can use it for are often brought in by water companies during periods of drought in the UK to ensure supply to households continue.
Be aware of any restrictions in place in your area like a hosepipe ban and make sure you follow the guidance. Look out for any emails or letters from your water company, so you are aware of any changes to your supply.
How do I stay safe in a drought?
Although we do have enough water, for now, the word drought might sound worrying. If you are asked to limit your water use by your local water company, make sure it doesn’t impact your health or the health of others.
- Keep up your daily hygiene to avoid the spread of infectious diseases.
- Look after your mental health – many people rely on water supplies for their businesses as well as at home so this might be worrying.
- Drink plenty, especially during the heatwave.
We have drought preparedness advice that offers practical help and guidance on how to prepare and stay safe during drought and water shortages.
How can I save water during a drought?
- Make sure your home is leak-free. Take a reading of your water metre. Wait 30 minutes without using any water and then take a second reading. If the reading increases, there’s a leak.
- Take shorter showers and avoid taking baths
- Only use dishwashers and washing machines on ‘light’ cycles
- Repair dripping faucets by changing washers – one drop per second wastes 2,700 gallons per year.
- Don’t pour water down the drain if there’s another use for it, like watering plants. This is called ‘grey water’ and it can also be collected when you take a shower, brush your teeth or run the tap in the kitchen.
- Get a water butt. When it does rain, you’ll have a supply, especially for your garden and car.
Why doesn't rain cancel out a drought after a heatwave?
After heatwaves and long periods with no rain, the ground becomes baked and dry. This means that heavy rainfall is absorbed at a much slower rate and sits on the surface, overwhelming the parched earth. Water can then run off down slopes or simply pool on dry ground, leading to flash floods.
What we really need after a heatwave is a long period of gentle drizzle, to soak the ground slowly and avoid floods.
This video from Reading University explains why rain after a heatwave can lead to flooding.
Who could be affected by flash floods after a heatwave?
Some people will have experienced flooding before, and live in flood-prone areas. But flash flooding can happen in other parts of the country and take you by surprise. For example, after heavy rain in the summer of 2021, there was some flash flooding at some London tube stations.
Flash floods are unpredictable, and we should think about what actions we can take to prepare.
What can people do about floods after heatwaves?
We have advice on what to do before, during, and after a flood, including how to prepare an emergency kit if you need to leave quickly.
Keep an eye on the weather forecast and local news for flooding in your area. Work out a plan for where you'll go if you do need to leave and how you'll bring your pets with you. Check on older or more vulnerable people in your area and help them work out a plan too.
What are the risks of climate more generally, and how are extreme weather events becoming more frequent?
Climate-related weather emergencies are on the rise in the UK and overseas. From flooding, heatwaves, storms, and droughts - one in seven people around the world has been directly impacted in the past ten years.
Over the past decade, 83 per cent of all disasters were caused by extreme weather and climate-related events like floods, storms, and heatwaves. Globally, these disasters have killed more than 410,000 people and affected a staggering 1.7 billion people.
Today we are seeing a clear rise in extreme weather events globally, due to climate change.
- Find out more about what The British Red Cross is doing to support people and communities affected by climate change in the UK and around the world.
More information on keeping safe in a drought
The British Red Cross has pulled together information from Red Cross societies in America and Australia, where extreme weather is more common.
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