Walking in their orchard at Lathcoats Farm, the apples on several trees were visibly burnt, their skin turned to bits, and the flesh beneath them corked. A large proportion of the farm’s harvest this year was unsellable.
The record-breaking heat wave in July literally smashed the apples on their branches, but Philip Taylor, who runs the farm with his nephew, now has bigger things to worry about. The soil under the trees cracks with drought – they’ve had very little rain this spring and summer. Even last winter, when rainwater was usually stored in the soil to keep it moist for months, it wasn’t wet enough.
July in England has been the driest since 1935, and the southern part of the country, including Lathcoats Farm, receives only 17% of the month’s average rainfall, according to the UK Met Office. There isn’t a huge amount of rain in sight either.
Water levels in reservoirs are dropping rapidly and rivers are drying up. Even the Thames that flows through London has shrunk, and the first 5 miles of it have dried up and disappeared. Thirteen rivers monitored by the Environment Agency are at an all-time low.
But for growers of thirsty crops like apples, there is no substitute for rain straight from the sky.
“Apple farming wouldn’t work if we had summers like this every year,” Taylor told CNN on his farm about 40 miles’ drive northeast of London. “Our access to water at the moment is only from water sources. Giving apple trees enough water to produce a decent crop would be very expensive.”
Fortunately, Taylor has other means of income. His family has turned the farm into an attractive place to visit, with a café and farm shop selling juice made with Lathcoats apples, fresh produce, and organic breads and cakes. People also come here to pick the fruit themselves, which makes for a fun day out for the little ones in particular.
He and his nephew also sell soft fruits, such as berries and peaches, that can be irrigated. But even that water is becoming scarce, and they can’t stand some of the measures the big farms are doing to guard against inclement weather.
“In terms of what we do about it, well, we’re kind of concerned,” Taylor said. “We might move away from growing apples. Sure, we’ll look at cultivars we might grow in the future. Some will be more resilient in these temperatures than some of the traditional English varieties we’re growing now.”
3 billion liters of water are lost due to leaks every day
The Hosepipe ban is forcing people to find less wasteful ways to renovate their gardens and wash their cars. Filling the paddling pool, as some Englishmen do on hot days, is prohibited in many areas as well.
But the problem isn’t just consumption, or even a lack of rain – the UK’s infrastructure is several hundred years old and particularly leaky. In England and Wales, 3.1 billion liters of water – enough to fill 1,240 Olympic-sized swimming pools – is lost through leaks every day.
“There’s a real lack of respect for the water we have, this is a really valuable resource,” Hannah Kluck, a climate scientist 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 seep everywhere. That’s one of the biggest problems. Water companies just let it seep — they really dropped the ball there.”
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 center of these efforts,” the organization said in a statement to CNN. “Smart grids, smart sensors, satellite technology, and drones are all part of the armory 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 tanks and water transport schemes across the country, “enough to supply 10 million people”, so that it can be saved in particularly drought times like these.
Another problem is that only about half of homes in England and Wales have water meters, which allows companies to charge customers based on their actual use. The rest pays only what companies estimate a home of their size might use.
The broader United Kingdom has the highest per capita water consumption of all of Europe, consuming more than 140 liters per day. Measurement has proven to reduce water consumption by more than 20%. Without it, there is no incentive to reduce use.
Kluck said water companies may not want to expand on metering, which could hurt their profits, assuming people will be more careful with their consumption.
“Water companies will want to make money selling water, so it’s in their best interest to keep selling, even when there are restrictions,” Kluck said. “We didn’t quite get this right, but the water companies don’t have the incentive to do the right thing, from an environmental point of view, and that applies to pollution and floods, as well as drought and leakage. It was a very big case of ‘let’s continue business as usual.'”
The UK’s Center for Environment and Hydrology warned on Wednesday that drought conditions, now affecting much of the country, could last until at least October. The center only looks a few months ahead, and there are fears the country could experience a second successive dry winter as well, even next year.
That could be disastrous, not only for families, but also for food security, already undermined by the Russian war in Ukraine and drought in other parts of Europe. It would also drive food prices higher, driving up inflation that is already painful for millions of people in the country, with higher mortgage rates and rents, and higher energy prices.
As Taylor told CNN from his farm, it was one thing after another.
“It all happened at once,” he said. “You can start with Brexit and go to Ukraine, then Covid. And now climate change is really starting to hurt.”
England garden wither
On the other side of 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 green thumb owners, who move here and plant large gardens in their homes.
David and Margaret Miller have lived in their home in Edinbridge, Kentish for nearly 40 years. The couple showed CNN photos of what their garden once looked like – a lush green oasis of geraniums, azaleas, dahlias, cannas, and echinacea. They also brought several certificates to show what awards they received from the local Edenbridge competition in Bloom Gardening, which they have won multiple times.
Now their front lawn has dried up and built from the lack of rain. Some of its flowers did not bloom at all in the heat, and the pink echinacea flowers faded completely, and their petals drooped.
The couple made the decision to try watering the flowers and plants they cared so often. Although she’s not under the hosepipe ban yet, Margaret Miller said, she’s switched to watering cans “to do the right thing.” This has 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 has vertigo, or Margaret, 80, who has hip problems. And their garden is everything to them. A hobby and sanctuary that has put them through the worst of the pandemic.
“When you see them all wither in the heat, you feel sad,” Margaret Miller said of her plants. “Because you took care of them over a period of time.”
She agrees that people should conserve water as a precious resource, but is frustrated that her garden must suffer while the country loses so many leaks every day.
“I feel bad about it, because then they came up with a reason like ‘Oh, we have a drainage system that’s several hundred years old, and it’s not the water companies’ fault.’ But I would have thought, in this day and age, they have equipment that can locate these leaks. and fix it,” she said. “I’m sure they make a lot of money, so why don’t they give it back? It makes me pass.”