The impact of drought in England: water restrictions, fire risks and farming hardship

England is likely to be declared officially in drought on Friday, a move that will allow water companies to impose tough restrictions on water use as temperatures remain high across swathes of the UK.

Hosepipe bans are likely to follow in areas that have not yet declared them, with people being urged to save water by not washing their cars, using lawn sprinklers or filling large pools.

Related: What will happen if drought is declared by UK government?

Ministers will take the decision after a meeting on Friday morning of the National Drought Group, which will hear from water companies, farming leaders and conservation groups.

The greens and fairways on a golf course near New Romney, Kent
The greens and fairways on a golf course near New Romney, Kent, in the driest July in south-east England since 1935. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

If drought is declared, water companies will be expected to start putting their drought plans into action, and will not need further permission from ministers to impose some restrictions on water use.

With temperatures likely to reach 36C in some places over the weekend, England is experiencing its driest nine-month period since 1976. South-east England received less than 10% of its usual amount of rainfall in July, making it the driest July since 1935. Rainfall has been at about 74% of its long-term average since last November.

Scientists said it was highly unlikely that “extreme” measures of the kind used in 1976 would be needed to deal with the heatwave. Standpipes and rationing – for many, the key memories from 1976 – were still “incredibly unlikely”, according to hydrologists, even though reservoirs were at their lowest levels since current records began in 1990.

Climate experts said the drought had been predicted for some time. Mike Rivington, a senior scientist at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, said: “The scale of heatwaves and droughts we’re currently experiencing has been projected by climate research for many years now. What we are seeing is a clear signal of what the future is going to be like.”

Nigel Arnell, a professor of climate system science at Reading University, said: “It’s incredibly unlikely that we will see major restrictions on water use in the UK. There are lots of things water companies can do before restricting a large number of users.”

He said the case of a village in Oxfordshire that ran out of water was a “one-off” and a result of “technical issues” rather than a foretaste of what the rest of England could expect.

Related: ‘This is the future’: the Oxfordshire village living without running water

Jamie Hannaford, the principal hydrologist at the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said water companies were also “more resilient than in 1976, we have better water management”.

Farmers were facing restrictions on how much water they were allowed to take from rivers and groundwater sources, threatening crop yields and raising the prospects of even higher food prices.

Jerry Knox, a professor of agricultural water management at Cranfield University, said: “We are starting to see real issues for crops such as potatoes. We will see reduced yields and particularly reduced quality.”

These problems would continue into autumn, he said, as farmers were unable to plant crops as usual and livestock farmers were already giving animals feed intended for winter because they were unable to graze in the fields.

Nature experts said they feared that some rivers were reaching “a point of no return”, as pollution and sewage outflows into rivers and streams had already vastly reduced their natural capacity to cope with drought.

There was also a high risk of wildfires across the country, as satellite images had shown extraordinary levels of dryness in vegetation and soils. Arnell said access to some vulnerable areas could be restricted to prevent people accidentally or deliberately starting fires, and firefighters had warned that the UK was “completely unprepared” for the conditions.

The Environment Agency has told water companies not to allow sewage outflows into rivers if any heavy rainfall follows the drought. Seven canals have been closed to navigation because of low water levels.

Rain and cooler weather were expected next week, but these would do little to alleviate the drought conditions, experts said.

“Lower temperatures will reduce demand for water, but the rainfall next week is likely to be showers and thunderstorms, which are hit and miss [in terms of their impact],” said Liz Bentley, the chief executive of the Royal Meteorological Society and a professor of meteorology at Reading University.

Dry soils cannot absorb heavy rainfall, so any storms next week could lead to flash flooding. “We are going to need a prolonged period of steady rainfall over days if not weeks [to alleviate the drought],” said Bentley.

The Conservative party leadership candidate Rishi Sunak said in a statement: “For too long, water hasn’t had the attention that it deserves. We are living through some of the driest conditions in decades, and we need to make sure that measures to boost resilience to extreme weather conditions are part of our holistic plan for water – to protect its supply and clean it up.”

He said he would “hold water companies accountable”, would fast track approvals for water reservoirs and “explore possible incentives to encourage private investment in infrastructure which can mitigate against the impact of floods and droughts”.

England is already judged by experts to be in a state of meteorological, hydrological and agricultural drought – meaning there has been little rainfall, that water stores and soil moisture have been depleted, and farmers are being badly affected – but drought can only be officially declared by ministers, and this affects what water companies can do.

A boy plays football on the very dry pitches at Hackney Marshes in east London.
A boy plays football on the very dry pitches of Hackney Marshes in east London. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

Related: Britain’s crises have one thing in common: a failure to invest | Larry Elliott

Riccardo la Torre, the national officer for the Fire Brigades Union, said lives were at stake from wildfires – scores of homes were destroyed in last month’s heatwave – and that cuts to its services in recent years were to blame for a lack of preparedness.

La Torre told Sky News: “These are brutal, brutal fires to fight: the temperature that they burn at, the speed at which they spread. The reality is we’ve been left completely unprepared to do that as a fire and rescue service.

“We’ve had over a fifth of the workforce cut since 2010 – that’s over 11,500 firefighters cut. Yet we’re asking them to deal with these extreme weather events in increasing regularity and increasing severity.”

Bentley said some of the impacts of the drought could be long term or permanent, especially if wildfires destroyed forests and peatlands. “Businesses and houses can be rebuilt, but there will be significant long-term effects on landscapes and on people’s lives.”

Rivington said that as the climate warmed these events would become more frequent and more severe. “In the future, there is a substantial risk that the recharge of water tables by winter rainfall may not be sufficient to make up for the increased summer water deficit, so if there are two successive years of drought, water shortages will be even more severe.”