London among world cities facing threat of ‘severe drought’

The UK capital’s "ageing water supply system" puts it in a precarious position as the intensity and frequency of droughts increase around the world, according to a new report.

Field with cracks in soil Cracked ground in London. Photograph: Nicolas Resille/EyeEm/Getty Images

Major cities around the world are facing growing risks of drought caused by climate change, with the poorest set to suffer the worst impacts, according to a report by humanitarian charity Christian Aid.

The report cites estimates from utility company Thames Water that the cost of a severe drought in London could be up to £330 million per day, with “severe economic, social and environmental consequences”. 

According to the company’s water resources management plan 2020-2100, changing weather patterns are set to reduce available water supplies by around 180 million litres a day in London by 2085. 

“They will also bring more extreme weather events such as storms, floods and drought,” says the plan. The company forecasts that a growing population will also put pressure on water resources, with over two million more people set to live in its catchment area by 2045 - equivalent to the whole of Birmingham and Leeds moving in, according to Thames Water. 

Christian Aid’s Nushrat Rahman Chowdhury, who co-authored the charity’s report, said: “Drought is not new but its intensity and frequency have increased over the last thirty years due to global warming. It is a real danger; it threatens lives and livelihoods of some of the poorest people in the world. These are communities which have done the least to cause the climate crisis.”

He added that to address this, not only did greenhouse gas emissions need cutting but financial support was required “for those losses which cannot be adapted to”.  The NGO will be calling for the creation of a loss and damage finance facility to be a major priority at this year’s COP27 in Egypt.

Since late 2021, planning permission for new developments in parts of Sussex have been frozen due to concerns that current levels of water abstraction are having an adverse impact on nearby protected sites, causing deterioration. Natural England has advised councils that new developments within the affected zone must be ‘water neutral’, and not add to this impact. 

The Environment Agency has also sought to raise alarm over water resources in the last year. In October 2021, the regulator’s chief executive Sir James Bevan said that much of the UK will face significant water deficits by 2050 unless radical action is taken.

The Environment Agency estimates that summer rainfall is set to decrease by approximately 15% by the 2050s in England, and by up to 22% by the 2080s. The regulator also estimates that by 2100 the country will increasingly see temperatures above 35°C, and sometimes 40°C in the south-east.