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"No Danger" Droughts Will Cause Drinking Water Shortage, Senior Minister Promises

The UK is facing drought conditions after severe hot weather (alamy)

6 min read

Exclusive: Cabinet minister Kit Malthouse has sought to reassure the public that drinking water will not run low in the coming weeks, but admitted that the drought and other crises means the UK faces a "challenging winter".

Malthouse, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said "there is currently no danger around our drinking water supply" despite the country enduring its driest summer in half a century.

Speaking to PoliticsHome on Monday at the Met Office in Exeter, the senior government minister nonetheless urged people to be "judicious" about water in the coming weeks and avoid "excessive" usage.

He highlighted that in Hampshire, where he is a Conservative MP, people had been advised to have showers, rather than baths, and limit their time spent in the shower to no more than four minutes. Water companies in Hampshire and numerous other parts of the country have introduced temporary hosepipe bans in order to protect depleted supplies of water.  

Current fears around water supplies are just one of many crises that will be top of the new prime minister's agenda when they enter Downing Street on 5 September, with concern the UK could face blackouts and soaring food prices as a result of energy shortages this winter. 

Malthouse encouraged people to switch off lights, avoid leaving TVs on standby, and stop boiling full kettles to bring down their energy bills and help the country conserve supplies.

“I went around our house at the weekend to look at all the things on standby and there were quite a lot that you could just turn off," he told PoliticsHome.

"The freezer and fridge need to stay on, but not the TV or the stereo system.

"If you only boil the water that you need in the kettle, a mug’s worth rather than the full kettle, you save a huge amount of energy and it boils a lot quicker.”

Malthouse visited the Met Office to unveil a new text messaging system that will alert people about floods, storms, and fires. The system is being launched in the autumn and will give officials the ability to message people in parts of the country where there is deemed to be a threat to life.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster explained that the text message will have a distinct appearance and siren-like sound, informing people in an area as small as an electoral ward that a dangerous event is imminent and the steps they should take to protect themselves.

“It is designed to catch people’s attention. We don’t want them to think it’s just spam," he said. “We are only using it where we believe there is a significant threat to life.”

The messaging system was trialled in Reading and Suffolk earlier in the year, and will be similar to systems used by the USA and Greece, according to the Cabinet Office.

Malthouse said that while there is no current risk to the country's drinking water, the extent of the recent dry weather means it will take time for wider water supplies to recover.

“When your aquifer is depleted to the extent that ours is now, it takes above average rainfall to take it up to back where you need it to be. We will see how the weather is as we go into autumn, but this does mean that average rainfall will not necessarily get us to where we need to be," he said.

“We’ve had some hot weeks after a very dry start to the year.

"For some parts of the country, that means domestic consumption needs to be reduced by not using hosepipes and by being careful about excessive water use.

"Thus far, the rest of the system is standing up just fine.”

On Monday, the National Farmers Union (NFU) warned that the weather was creating "a really challenging growing environment for our fruit and veg", with growers reporting crops burning in the ground, while some produce that does make it shop shelves is set to have reduced shelf life.

The NFU said this was exacerbating a pre-existing waste crisis caused by a shortage of workers, which had led to £22m worth of fruit and vegetables being lost in the first half of this year. 

Malthouse told PoliticsHome that the government was having "intensive conversations" with the agricultural sector and water companies and "irrigation needs of farmers and maintaining food supply", as well as ensuring that farmers have the water they need for their livestock.The severely hot weather is just one of the many challenges facing the country at the moment, with soaring energy bills fuelling a growing cost-of-living crisis and the government being forced to steps to conserve energy supplies this autumn and winter.

PoliticsHome revealed last week that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) had asked industry figures to explain how a blackout would impact food supply chains.

This followed a Bloomberg report that the government was preparing for several days of organised blackouts in January, due to a combination of cold weather and gas shortages, under its latest reasonable worst-case scenario planning.

Malthouse recently told Talk TV that hospital bosses had been urged to ensure that their "generators are properly serviced” and “diesel tanks are full” in preparation for possible disruption to the country's energy supplies in the coming weeks.

“It would be wrong to say the winter isn’t going to be challenging, because it is," said Malthouse.

However, he stressed that it is the government's job to prepare for the worst, even if the worst is very unlikely to materialise, and that some "British phlegm" would help the country get through the next few months.

“If I was a member of the public, I’d say: ‘Thank god they’re planning and taking preparations', the Cabinet minister said.

“That’s why we have an insurance industry. People buy house insurance in case of catastrophe. We're planning for those things, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are going to happen.”

“There is a lot of work and planning going on for what is undoubtedly going to be a challenging winter. If we get that planning right, we’ll be able to deal with the worst of it.”

Boris Johnson, the outgoing Prime Minister, appointed Malthouse as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster earlier in the summer as part of his caretaker government.

Since entering the Cabinet Office in July, Malthouse has taken steps to reform the department's emergency-planning unit, in reform that he says will ensure the government is better-equipped to prepare for long-term challenges.

He has split the Civil Contingencies Secretariat into two, with one dealing with day-to-day emergencies and the other handling preparation for potential crises in the next five years and beyond.

“It [the Civil Contingencies Secretariat] has done a cracking job over the last 20 years keeping us safe," Malthouse told PoliticsHome.

"But in truth, while we have done that work extremely well, it has distracted from our ability to look ahead and identify what the risks might be in the medium to long term and see what early mitigations we can take to deal with that.”

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