Britain may be on the verge of the worst drought since 1976, with strict hosepipe bans likely if the hot and dry weather continues.
The country is not yet in widespread drought, but most of England except for the northwest has moved into a state of “prolonged dry weather”, the step before drought is declared.
It raises the possibility of restrictions such as a ban on using hosepipes for watering gardens and washing cars.
A government source reportedly compared the current heatwave to the summer of 1976 – one of the worst UK droughts on record, which is often used as a benchmark.
“In terms of climate and rainfall, you can definitely compare this to 1976,” they said, according to The Sun.
“We’ve seen below-average rainfall during winter and spring. It’s been remarkably dry and very hot during the first half of the summer.
“Most of England has already been moved to Prolonged Dry Weather status and if it continues to be dry and hot, we may be in a drought in August.”
Officials from the Environment Department (Defra) and agencies including the Environment Agency will meet with water companies and other groups including the National Farmers’ Union and the Country Land and Business Association on Tuesday to discuss how to protect water supplies.
Much of the country already has low river flows, affecting the quality and quantity of water, with impacts on farmers and other water users, as well as wildlife.
Low groundwater levels, dry soils and low reservoirs have also been seen following months of below average rainfall, and last week’s record-breaking heatwave put extra pressure on water resources.
In Yorkshire, the Environment Agency has applied for a drought order for the Holme Styes reservoir in Holmfirth after months of low rainfall, to protect wildlife.
Southern Water has applied for a drought permit for the River Test in Southampton, Hampshire, amid falling water levels, which could see it bring in hosepipe bans – now known as “temporary use bans”.
There are currently no restrictions such as hosepipe bans in place in England, but water companies are already urging people to save water in the face of the hot, dry weather, and localised bans are possible.
For farmers, August and September will be critical, and there is an increasing risk of restriction in irrigation in localised areas.
Fire chiefs have also warned UK cities they need to prepare for wildfires after dozens of “unprecedented” blazes broke out during last week’s record breaking temperatures.
In a statement carried by the BBC, National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) tactical advisor David Swallow said “services need to recognise the risk they’ve now got”.
“If they don’t, then they’re naive,” he added.
“There are very urban services that think that wildfires are low down on the risk list. I understand the need to prioritise resources, but there needs to be a review.”
London Fire Brigade assistant commissioner Jonathan Smith told the broadcaster the service had already been preparing for an expected increased risk, but added that risk was now “immediate”.
The fire service saw its busiest day since the Second World War as a result of the extreme temperatures, with crews attending 1,146 incidents in a single day.
A total of 16 homes were lost in a large fire in Wennington, east London, and fire crews had to fight to save the nearby fire station itself from the flames.
The last time drought was declared was in 2018.
Continued dry weather, similar to that seen in the last few months, could see another drought declared.
Forecasts are relatively uncertain after the settled weather this week, but Met Office forecaster Craig Snell said the trend appeared to be for drier weather in the South and wetter conditions in the North.
“The trend is the south will see the balance of the drier weather and the north will see the balance of the wetter weather, which is kind of what you would expect at this time of year,” he said.
“Even as you go to the middle part of August, on balance more persistent spells of rain will be across the northwest, with the south seeing any rainfall in the form of showers or thunderstorms.”
Additional reporting by Press Association