River in drought

Drought and water scarcity are getting worse

We need to protect our rivers before it’s too late. Many people don’t even realise that the UK and Ireland experience drought; after all, we’re known for our rain! However, it only takes a few sunny days to dry our vulnerable rivers to the point that they virtually disappear.

Although drought occurs naturally when temperatures rise and rainfall drops, climate change and population growth have placed a massive strain on freshwater resources through exacerbating water scarcity. Water is being abstracted from rivers and the aquifers that feed them at an unsustainable rate, whilst changing rainfall patterns mean that many of our rivers will see a marked decline in flow. When water levels drop, the concentration of pollutants increases, temperatures rise and the freshwater ecosystem suffers.

At The Rivers Trust, we are incredibly concerned about the low level of water in many rivers across the UK. We would like to see a longer-term, more sustainable, joined-up approach to managing our water resources with greater emphasis on building resilience within rivers and wider landscapes. If we could do this and reduce water consumption, we could limit the impact on fish, wildlife and the people enjoying the rivers during these dry weather periods. Moreover, we can help to protect those economic sectors that rely on water, ensuring a sustainable supply for all, including the river itself.

Until legislation preventing unsustainable abstraction is introduced, we need to take matters into our own hands. If we all make changes to water use in our daily life—particularly over the summer—we could significantly reduce the amount of water withdrawn from our rivers. In addition, working to improve the health of our rivers in can help to buffer them against the damage caused by periods of drought.

How does drought and water scarcity impact rivers?

You might think that your personal water use is unrelated to river levels, but that isn’t the case! Water companies often abstract water directly from rivers. This water is treated, then used in our homes and businesses. If we use less water, we will reduce the amount withdrawn from our rivers and aquifers.

When water is excessively abstracted from rivers, it can have dire consequences. Unfortunately, many rivers contain pollutants as a result of agriculture, industry and household waste. When water levels drop, the concentration of these pollutants increases—often to a higher level than wildlife and plants can tolerate. Water scarcity also decreases the concentration of oxygen in the water, which again spells disaster for flora and fauna, Low water levels also prevent certain species of fish from migrating, which can completely disrupt important stages of their lifecycle.

We are lucky enough to have clean, running water in our homes—but wildlife doesn’t have this luxury! Many rely on rivers for their water intake, so when rivers dry up, it can cause wildlife to suffer and threatens ecosystems.

What’s my water footprint and how can I reduce it?

You’ve probably heard of carbon footprints, but water footprints are also very important.

A water footprint can be calculated for a particular product, service or person—or it can be for something as large as a country! Water footprints take into account all of the water which is required to generate the end product. They look at three different areas: blue, green and grey water usage.

  • Blue water footprint: the volume of freshwater consumed from water bodies such as rivers, lakes, wetlands, aquifers, etc.
  • Green water footprint: the volume of water stored in the soil following rainfall. This water can be used by plants or evaporated to produce a product
  • Grey water footprint: this is the volume of water required to dilute pollutants sufficiently enough for discharge

Our water footprints are determined by the products we purchase, the services we use and the way we live. By altering our habits, we can massively reduce our water footprint. Diet is particularly important; it’s thought that eating a meat-free diet could cut your water footprint in half!

Being more mindful about how you use water at home and in the garden can also make a difference to your water footprint. Simple measures like fixing leaks can have a huge impact; just one leaky tap can waste 2,802 gallons of water each year!

Icon of a wetland in navy



hectares of wetlands were created or restored by local Rivers Trusts in 2022-23

Learn more about drought

Delve into drought and learn more about where our water comes from, how quickly our demand could exceed the supply, what we are calling on each sector to do in order to address drought, and how we can all reduce our water footprints.

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