Water resources and drought

Key organisations

Defra - the Department works 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 hosepipe bans, drought permits and drought orders.

The Environment Agency – is the statutory body that has a 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:

Water Companies - Water companies have the power to impose temporary sprinkler and hosepipe bans. Hosepipe bans do not require the approval of the Government or the Environment Agency.

Back to top

Changes to powers to restrict non-essential uses of water

The 2004-06 drought in the southeast of England, was one of the worst in the last 100 years. Eight water companies in the southeast imposed hosepipe bans affecting nearly 16 million people.  There is evidence to suggest that hosepipe bans, as well as appeals to save water, cut customers’ demand for water by 5-15%.

The drought drew attention to the fact we needed to modernise the scope of hosepipe ban powers which only applied to watering private gardens and washing private motor cars.

In 2007 Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government consulted on the modernisation of the scope of the hosepipe ban powers.  It also proposed the production by the water industry of a Code of Practice to ensure a consistent approach to the imposition of water use restrictions and to the treatment of concessions in respect of customers, uses or apparatus, during times of drought.

These powers have now been widened through section 36 of the Flood and Water Management Act, which was brought into force in October 2010. Associated with this are regulations which specify these widened powers.

Back to top

Drought orders and permits

In July 2005 Defra, in conjunction with the Welsh Assembly Government and the Environment Agency published an updated booklet providing information on application procedures for both drought orders and drought permits.

The booklet is produced primarily for water undertakers but it may also be of interest to other bodies and individuals interested in the process for making drought orders and permits. The information contained in the booklet is not statutory guidance, neither does it provide an authoritative interpretation of the relevant statute law.

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.

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.

Back to top

Drought orders granted in 2006

The 2004-06 drought in southeast England was one of the worst in the last 100 years. Drought order powers were granted to Sutton and East Surrey Water, Mid-Kent Water and Southern Water during 2006 to limit or prohibit non-essential uses of water.

Non-essential use drought orders empowered the water companies to restrict the uses of water listed in the Drought Direction 1991. The Drought Direction, made by the Secretary of State, lists uses of water which can be banned under a drought order and goes further than a hosepipe ban.

The drought orders mentioned above do not authorise the use of stand-pipes. Only an emergency drought order can authorise supply by stand-pipes or water tanks. For emergency drought orders the Secretary of State must additionally be satisfied that the deficiency is likely to impair the economic or social well being of persons in the area concerned. No such applications have been made in recent years.

Back to top

Drought plans

Drought plans are required to ensure the security of the public water supply in periods of water shortage, caused by exceptionally low rainfall.

At the 1997 Water Summit, Ministers obtained a commitment from water companies to produce drought contingency plans. Since then, water companies in England and Wales have produced drought plans on a voluntary basis. The Water Act 2003 has made it a statutory requirement for water companies to prepare, maintain and publish drought plans. Following a consultation on the water company drought plan regulations issued in December 2004, the Drought Plan Regulations 2005 came into force in October 2005.

The first set of statutory drought plans have been submittedto the Secretary of Stateand. water companies for the first time publicly consulted on their draft drought plans in summer 2006. All of the final drought plans have been or shortly will be published on the water companies' websites. The Drought Plan Directions specify what information the drought plan should include and the timetable for submission. The Environment Agency prepared detailed guidance for water companies on the content of drought plans and timings for the completion of each stage of the process.

Drought plans are required to set out how a water company will continue to meet its duties to supply adequate quantities of wholesome water during drought periods with as little recourse as possible to drought orders or drought permits. Depending upon the severity of the drought this might include campaigns to encourage reduced consumption by the public, hosepipe bans, enhanced leakage control and pressure reduction.

After the final drought plan is published it must be revised by the water company within 3 years and 6 months from the date of publication and submitted to the Secretary of State. However, if there is a relevant material change in circumstances prior to this, then the water company must submit a revised plan within 6 months from when the change occurred.

Back to top

Further information is available on our Help page about downloading or reading Adobe Acrobat PDF documents.

Page last modified: 8 October 2010
Page published: 30 October 2003