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Water Scarcity and Drought

Water Scarcity and Drought threaten our aquatic ecosystems

Many parts of the UK are currently extremely water stressed, reflecting not only a prolonged period of low rainfall but also the demand for water by the general public, businesses, industry and agriculture too. The combination of drought conditions coupled with, at times, high levels of abstraction results in a much-diminished resource. This is reflected by reduced river flows, lowered lake, reservoir and groundwater levels and, a drying up of wetlands. Lack of water also worsens water quality, diminishing the ability of a waterbody to dilute pollutants and increasing the risk of low oxygen levels. All these effects can have a critical impact upon aquatic ecosystems, threatening fish, invertebrates, vegetation and bird life too. Low river flows, for example, represent a particular risk to migratory fish that require sufficient flow to enable upstream movement towards spawning grounds.

The dried up bed of the River Churn – a tributary of the upper Thames - in September 2011. The Environment Agency rescued thousands of fish, including brown trout, dace, chub, barbel, roach, perch and brook lampreys, from the remaining pools of water, releasing them further downstream at the confluence with the Thames. The river remained dry through to December 2011 and suffered from low flows throughout spring 2012.


For the latest on the drought see the Environment Agency website

Unfortunately the current pressure upon our water resources is likely to be exacerbated over future decades due to both population growth and climate change, with a decrease in summer rainfall and hence river flows predicted for much of the UK; more information on the defra website

Without establishing a more efficient, sustainable approach to the management of our water resources, increased competition for water is very likely, leading not only to further detrimental environmental outcomes but economic consequences for those sectors abstracting and using water.

Thankfully, a number of measures can be adopted to implement a more efficient use of water across all sectors to reduce demand and also ensure that sufficient water is available year round for our freshwater ecosystems. For example, leakage reduction in distribution and supply systems clearly needs further attention, whilst the raising of public awareness of water conservation issues can play a key role; a few behavioral changes together with the use of water saving devices can make a critical difference. Metering also helps people and businesses better manage their water use. Nationwide installation of meters needs to occur, as is already the case in a number of other European countries.

In the drive towards greater nationwide water efficiency, The Rivers Trust strongly supports the work of Waterwise, the non-governmental organization that focuses on reducing water consumption in the UK. For further information visit the Waterwise website

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