UK in crisis as apples burn on branches and watering bans hit millions

Walking through their orchard at Lathcoats Farm, the apples of many trees were visibly scorched, their skins browned in places, the flesh underneath turned corky. A significant proportion of the farm’s harvest this year has been unsaleable.

A record-breaking heatwave in July literally baked the apples on their branches, but Philip Taylor, who runs the farm with his nephew, now has bigger things to worry about. The ground under the trees is cracking with dryness — they’ve had so little rain this spring and summer. Even last winter, when rainwater usually pools in the ground to keep it moist for months, it just wasn’t wet enough.

England had its driest July since 1935 last month, and the southern part of the country, including Lathcoats Farm, received just 17% of its average rainfall for the month, according to the UK office. Met. No significant amount of rain is on the horizon either.

Water levels in reservoirs are dropping rapidly and rivers are drying up. Even the Thames which runs through London has narrowed, its first 5 miles dried up and disappeared. Thirteen rivers monitored by the Environment Agency are at their lowest levels on record.

The climate crisis, brought on by the burning of fossil fuels, is making hot weather, droughts and floods more frequent and intense in the UK, and the warmer the planet gets, the more severe these impacts will be.

But for farmers of thirsty crops like apples, there is no substitute for rain falling directly from the sky.

“Apple farming won’t work if we have summers like this every year,” Taylor told CNN at his farm, 40 miles northeast of London. “At the moment, our access to water is only through the network. Giving the apple trees enough water to produce a decent harvest would be far too expensive.”

Fortunately, Taylor has other sources of income. His family have turned the farm into an attractive place to visit, with a café and farm shop selling Lathcoats apple juice, fresh produce, organic bread and cakes. People also come here to pick their own fruit, which makes for a fun day out, especially for young children.

He and his nephew also sell soft fruits, such as berries and plums, which can be irrigated. But even that water is getting scarce, and they can’t afford to put in place some of the measures that big farms take to protect themselves from extreme weather.

“So in terms of what we do about it, well, we’re just a little bit worried,” Taylor said. “We may just give up growing apples. We will definitely be looking at varieties that we might plant in the future. Some would be more resistant to these temperatures than some of the traditional English varieties that we are currently growing.

3 billion liters of water lost in leaks every day

The garden hose ban is forcing people to find cheaper ways to restock their gardens and wash their cars. Filling a paddling pool, as some English people do in hot weather, is also prohibited in many areas.

But it’s not just consumption that’s the problem, or even the lack of rain: the infrastructure in the UK is several hundred years old and particularly permeable. In England and Wales, 3.1 billion liters of water – enough to fill 1,240 Olympic swimming pools – are lost to leaks every day.

“There is a real disrespect for the water we have, this really very precious resource,” Hannah Cloke, a climatologist and hydrologist at the University of Reading, told CNN. “We drink it, we use it to grow our food, and yet we still let it leak everywhere. That’s one of the biggest problems. The water companies just let it leak – they really dropped the ball the.”

Low water levels expose parts of the shoreline at Hanningfield Reservoir in Essex, England.

Water UK, which represents 12 major water companies across the country, said much had already been done to plug the leaks.

“Companies are increasingly placing innovation and technology at the heart of these efforts,” the organization said in a statement to CNN. “Smart grids, smart sensors, satellite technology and drones are all part of the arsenal being deployed to detect and fix leaks faster than ever before.”

Companies represented by Water UK also plan to invest £14 billion ($17 billion) in reservoirs and projects to move water across the country, “enough to supply 10 million people”, so that ‘it can be saved for particularly dry periods like this.

Another problem is that only around half of homes in England and Wales have water meters, allowing companies to charge customers based on actual usage. Others only pay what companies estimate a home of their size could use.

The wider UK has the highest per capita water consumption in Europe, consuming over 140 liters per day. Metering has been proven to reduce water consumption by more than 20%. Without them, there is little incentive to reduce use.

Cloke said water companies might not want to expand metering, which could cut into their profits, assuming people would be more careful with their consumption.

“Water companies will want to make money selling water, so it’s in their interest to keep selling, even when there are restrictions in place,” Cloke said. “We’re not entirely right, but water companies have no incentive to do the right thing, environmentally, and that goes for pollution and floods, as well as droughts and storms. leaks. of ‘Let’s carry on, as usual.'”

Cracked earth in a dry field near Chelmsford, England.

Britain’s Center for Ecology and Hydrology warned on Wednesday that drought conditions, which are now affecting much of the country, could last until at least October. The center is only looking a few months ahead, and there are fears the country could also experience a second consecutive dry winter, possibly even into next year.

This could be catastrophic, not only for households, but also for food security, already damaged by the Russian war in Ukraine and drought in other parts of Europe. It would also push food prices even higher, fueling already painful inflation for millions of people in the country, as mortgage rates and rents rise, and energy prices soar.

As Taylor told CNN from her farm, it’s been one thing after another.

“It all happened at once,” he said. “You could start with Brexit and continue to Ukraine, then Covid. And now climate change is really starting to hurt.”

The garden of England is fading

Across London to the south, the English county of Kent is known as the Garden of England for its rolling green hills, fertile land and orchards that supply the nation with strawberries, apples and pears. It is also a place that attracts those with green fingers, who settle there and cultivate large gardens at home.

David and Margaret Miller water their plants at their home in Edenbridge.

David and Margaret Miller have lived in their home in Edenbridge, Kent, for around 40 years. The couple showed CNN photographs of what their garden once looked like — a lush green oasis of geraniums, azaleas, dahlias, cannas and coneflowers. They also took out several certificates to show their accolades from the local Edenbridge in Bloom gardening competition, which they won on several occasions.

Now their lawn is parched and brown from the lack of rain. Some of their dahlias haven’t bloomed at all in the heat, and the pink echinacea flowers are completely wilted, their petals drooping.

The couple made the decision to try watering the flowers and plants they love the most. Although they are not yet subject to a garden hose ban, they have switched to watering cans “to do the right thing”, said Margaret Miller. It made what was once a 30 minute job twice as long. In this heat, they sometimes need to water their select few plants twice a day just to keep them alive.

It’s not an easy task for David, 84, who suffers from vertigo, or Margaret, 80, who has hip problems. And their garden is everything to them. A hobby and sanctuary that got them through the worst of the pandemic.

The Millers' Garden was once a lush oasis but has succumbed to the heat and lack of rain.

“When you see them all wilting in the heat, you feel sad,” Margaret Miller said of her plants. “Because, over a period of time, you fed them.”

She agrees that people should conserve water as a precious resource, but is frustrated that her garden has to suffer as the country loses so many leaks every day.

“I feel pretty upset about that because then they come up with a reason like, ‘Oh, we have a drainage system that goes back hundreds of years, and it’s not the water companies’ fault. But I would have thought that in our day and age they have equipment that allows them to tell where those leaks are and fix them,” she said. “I’m sure they make a lot of money , so why don’t they reinvest it? It really hurts me.”

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