Learning lessons of the 1995 drought

Scammonden Reservoir at the height of the drought in 1995. (Photo by Robert Brook/REX_Shutterstock)
Scammonden Reservoir at the height of the drought in 1995. (Photo by Robert Brook/REX_Shutterstock)
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It’s 20 years since the Pennine reservoirs ran dry and the threat of water rationing loomed. But how well prepared are we for another drought? Chris Bond reports.

TWENTY years ago much of the country was basking in a heatwave.

The reservoir in June this year. (Photo: Tony Johnson).

The reservoir in June this year. (Photo: Tony Johnson).

The likes of Supergrass and Take That provided the soundtrack as the nation sizzled and temperatures soared making Britain feel like the Mediterranean.

In cinemas, Waterworld – a post-apocalyptic film set in a future where the polar ice caps have melted and most of the planet is underwater – was, ironically, one of the blockbusters that blistering summer.

However, unlike the Hollywood film, water was in short supply in large parts of the UK. Yorkshire was hit particularly badly with some of the county’s reservoirs resembling small deserts.

Even today, the drought of 1995 lingers long in people’s memories. Many of you will probably recall the sight of giant tankers rumbling through villages and along motorways.

The drought, which was compared by some with the scorching summer of 1976, hit supplies to 600,000 West Yorkshire customers.

Towns and cities in parts of Yorkshire faced the prospect of cut-offs and rationing and water engineers had to install stand-pipes in the streets.

At the same time more than one-third of Yorkshire Water’s treated supplies were pouring into the ground from leaking pipes – evidence of a lack of investment in the ageing supply system.

Appeals to conserve supplies were made to customers who had seen water fountaining away from burst mains and running to waste.

Yorkshire Water had reservoirs elsewhere, in the east of the county, with spare water. But there were no pipelines to transfer these supplies to West Yorkshire where the situation had reached crisis point.

Bradford was one of the worst-hit places – the water shortage was estimated as a once-in-200-years eventuality – and as the crisis deepened there was reportedly even a proposal to evacuate hospitals, old people’s homes and businesses.

In a bid to alleviate the problem Yorkshire Water mobilised a convoy of to 700 tankers which made 3,500 daily deliveries from east to west of the county to refill the reservoirs. The emergency measures cost £3m a week and were a public relations disaster that sparked a torrent of criticism and led to the resignation of the then chief executive.

The utility was so under-prepared that a spokesman famously conceded: “Whenever rain has been forecast, it seems to have stopped falling before coming over the top of the Pennines.”

An Ofwat investigation at the time concluded that Yorkshire Water had failed in its arrangements for maintaining adequate supplies of water.

It was a bruising episode for the company but in the intervening decades Yorkshire Water has invested billions of pounds maintaining and improving its water infrastructure – at the heart of which is a network of pipes that means water can be moved easily from one place to another.

Neil Dewis, head of service delivery at Yorkshire Water, says the region is now well-placed to cope with any water shortages. “At the moment our reservoirs are around 92 per cent full and we’re in a really good position.”

He says the improvements mean they are much better equipped to cope with heatwaves and droughts.

“We’ve got a unique grid system which was a major investment put in over the last 20 years and that enables us to move water from our reservoirs, rivers and bore holes all around the region.

“So from our control room we’re able to look at where we need the water and through our network we can move the water to where it’s needed, and that investment has made a big difference.”

That’s not to say that hosepipe bans will be a thing of the past, it just means they’re less likely to happen, or certainly less likely to happen as often.

Dr Gordon Mitchell, a water resource planning expert from the school of Geography at the University of Leeds, believes lessons have been learned from what happened.

“The 1995 drought was a serious challenge for water companies and I remember, like a lot of people probably do, seeing the tankers trundling down the M62.

“From a reputation point of view it was terrible for Yorkshire Water but in terms of the actual impact it wasn’t that bad, although we did come very close to it having a very serious impact.”

But he believes Yorkshire’s water resources are now in a much stronger position. “Since then there’s been changes in leadership and there’s been a lot more investment. Water security has become very important and Yorkshire Water has invested heavily in its network.”

Twenty years ago, water companies were left to their own devices and made their own contingency plans, but since 1999 they are all required to have a detailed water resource management plan which has to be updated every five years.

Some water companies, including Yorkshire Water, also have agreements with neighbouring water companies that allows them to access each others networks at times of emergency.

Dr Mitchell says demand for water is rising but points out that it is coming from different areas.

“Traditional heavy industries and manufacturing are big users of water and these have tailed off, but they have more than been replaced by significant rises in consumer demand which has put extra demands on water resources.”

Leakage is another issue, one that has become a bugbear for many people who see it as a needless and costly waste. “People notice pipes leaking and understandably want to see them plugged, but these are easy to find. The biggest problem is the ones you can’t see because these need to be traced and then fixed, which is expensive.”

Over the next 25 years Yorkshire’s population is expected to increase by around a million people which increase the demand for water by around 140 million litres a day.

But perhaps the biggest conundrum is climate change and trying to work out what impact it will have in the coming decades.

A study of Met Office figures for central England, including Yorkshire, revealed that the risk of hot, dry summers in the future was 13 times higher than previously thought.

“Climate change is the great unknown factor in all this,” says Dr Mitchell. “In the past the heavens have opened just in time and we’ve been saved by circumstance and the weather.

“But if we had a hot, dry summer followed by another hot, dry summer with a dry winter in between then this could have a serious impact on parts of the country,” he says.

“In 1976, lots of industries shut up shop or closed their production lines because there was no water. We can’t say that will be more likely to happen again, but climate change does pose that risk.”

1995 water crisis focused minds

The 1995 drought, which stretched into January the following year, was viewed as the most testing time for the English water companies since privatisation in 1989.

Customers were advised to take showers instead of baths, repair dripping taps, wash dishes in a bowl instead of under a running tap, and not clean cars.

Bosses blamed low rainfall while critics blamed leaking pipes and lack of investment.

Since then Yorkshire Water has invested heavily in maintaining and improving its services.

The company is set to invest £870m maintaining and improving its clean water assets (reservoirs, water treatment works and underground pipes) over the next five years.