Cracked and dried soil

Defra has policy responsibility for water resources in England. Water resources need to be managed effectively, given increasing pressure on water supply as a result of population increase, changing household usage and climate change. Despite our reputation as a rainy country, we may face a future with less rainfall and less certainty about when it will fall.

In 2012, a drought developed in much of England as a result of two winters with below average rainfall. By April 2012 river flows and groundwater levels were exceptionally low and temporary use bans were introduced by seven water companies. Between April and July there was exceptional summer rainfall which enabled water resources to return to normal levels and the temporary use bans were lifted. The National Drought Group have assessed the management of these and will identify any areas where responses could be improved.

Latest news

  • August 2012: The Environment Agency confirmed in their monthly water situation report for August that rainfall over the five month period ending August 2012 was provisionally the wettest on record for six of their seven regions and the wettest for England and Wales since records began in 1910. This has resulted in normal or above river levels, normal reservoir stocks and normal groundwater levels at the majority of sites with the exception of those in Sandstone aquifers concentrated in the Midlands which take longer to recharge. Last remaining water restrictions were lifted in July 2012.
  • June 2012: Environment Agency publishes the Water resources and drought prospects report for summer/autumn 2012 and winter 2012/13 Water resources and drought prospects
  • April 2012: The National Drought Management Group formed, which will be responsible for producing a cross-sector view of national drought issues and will coordinate the delivery of drought management activities, communications and risk mitigation.

Water restrictions

Restrictions enable water companies to limit certain uses of water to help them conserve their supplies.

For the latest information on water restrictions and water resource position see environment-agency.gov.uk


Since June 2011, continuing dry conditions have affected large areas of England, particularly in the south and the east.

The Environment Agency’s national and local teams lead on managing and monitoring drought and its effects locally. The current water situation in England, and extent of areas formally identified as in drought, are available on the Environment Agency’s website together with monthly water situation reports, drought prospect reports and latest weekly rainfall and river flows.

The situation has improved considerably in recent months but will need to be carefully monitored, particularly if we experience another dry winter.

Water companies facing an increased risk of drought are expected to:

  • reduce water losses and increase leakage detection;
  • engage and communicate with their customers to help them understand the current position and encourage them to use water wisely;
  • co-ordinate temporary restrictions on water use, such as hosepipe bans, where necessary;
  • talk to the Environment Agency about drought permits as early as possible.

Defra is also working with the agricultural and food sectors to help them adapt to climate change, improve irrigation technology, develop more water efficient crops, and develop markets for drought-affected produce.

How we work together

Defra – We work closely with the Environment Agency and the water companies to ensure that the public water supply is maintained and that the environment does not suffer unduly. The Department’s formal role when water is under stress is to deal with drought order applications made to the Secretary of State. Defra has policy responsibility for the legislation that governs water resources and which includes the law relating to temporary restrictions, drought permits and drought orders.

The Environment Agency – The statutory body with the duty to manage water resources in England and Wales. Its aim is to ensure that the management and future development of our water resources is carried out in a sustainable manner. Drought Permits are granted by the Environment Agency. The Agency keeps the water resource position under review. Action on drought is being co-ordinated through the National Drought Group.

Water Companies – Water companies have the power to impose temporary restrictions on certain uses of water, sometimes referred to as hosepipe bans. Such restrictions do not require the approval of the Government or the Environment Agency.

Natural England – The statutory body that provides advice on the natural environment and oversees delivery of the agri-environment programme. It ensures that Defra, other agencies, water companies and wildlife organisations are kept up to date about the impacts of drought on wildlife and the natural environment and any actions that can be taken to reduce these impacts.

Relevant legislation

Water restrictions (commonly known as hosepipe bans):

Drought orders

In an escalating drought water companies may have to take additional steps by applying to the Environment Agency for a drought permit or to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for a drought order.

Drought permits enable companies to take water from new sources, or to alter restrictions on existing abstractions. Drought orders can go further and restrict the non-essential use of water. The Drought Direction lists uses of water which can be banned under a drought order.

Permits and orders can only be made if the Environment Agency or Secretary of State is satisfied that the need exists by reason of an exceptional shortage of rain. They are made only for specified periods and may be renewed only for further limited periods.

Information on application procedures for both drought orders and drought permits is available, produced primarily for water undertakers:

Drought plans

Under the Water Act 2003 it is a statutory requirement for water companies to prepare, maintain and publish drought plans. These are published on the individual water companies’ websites.

Page last modified: 26 September 2012

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