By Farouq Suleiman and Sachin Ravikumar
LONDON - Britain officially declared a drought in parts of England on Friday as households faced new curbs on water usage during a prolonged period of hot and dry weather that has kindled wildfires and tested infrastructure.
The drought, the first in England since 2018, means that water companies will step up efforts to manage the impact of dry weather on farmers and the environment, including by managing water to protect supplies, the Environment Agency said.
"All water companies have reassured us that essential supplies are still safe, and we have made it clear it is their duty to maintain those supplies," Water Minister Steve Double said, following a meeting of the National Drought Group.
"We are better prepared than ever before for periods of dry weather, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation ... and take further action as needed."
The drought follows England's driest July in nearly 90 years, a month in which temperatures crossed 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) for the first time, bringing a renewed focus to the impacts of climate change.
Parts of England and Wales are now in the middle of a four-day "extreme heat" warning with many regions crossing the threshold for a heatwave, the Met Office has said, while a separate "heat-health" alert was extended until Tuesday.
Temperatures in southern England crossed 32C by 1200 GMT on Friday, with the mercury projected to rise even further, and television images showed swathes of burning grassland in a fire near Essex, just east of London.
Extreme weather is likely to continue, with the Met Office forecasting intense downpours and thunderstorms on Sunday and Monday, which could also cause some flooding.
"You get a heavy downpour on hard, dry ground, the water doesn't soak into the ground," Met Office spokesperson Nicola Maxey said. "It runs off onto roads, sits on top of the ground, and it takes a long time to soak in — so you get flash flooding."
Much of Europe has faced weeks of baking temperatures that have triggered large wildfires and drained water levels in major rivers.
Britain's July heatwave caused rail tracks to buckle, melted airport runways and sparked dozens of grass fires, resulting in the busiest week for London's fire service since World War Two.
Earlier on Friday, Yorkshire Water announced a hosepipe ban would begin on Aug. 26, prohibiting customers from using hoses to water gardens, wash cars or fill up paddling pools.
The company, which services about 2.3 million households and 130,000 businesses, is the latest regional water firm to announce usage restrictions.
Friday's drought declaration covers parts of southern, central and eastern England including the counties of Devon, Cornwall, Kent and south London, among other places.