‘People are worried it will happen again’: the English village whose water ran out | Climate crisis

John Ramsden surveyed the parched village green, its yellow grass withered in the midday sun, and wondered what lay ahead. “People are worried it’ll happen again.”

The “again” refers to life without a water supply. Ramsden’s village of Challock, perched in the uplands of the Kent downs, has already survived one bout without mains water this summer.

For six days earlier this month, its taps largely ran dry, forcing its school to close. Challock’s village hall was converted into an emergency centre for distributing bottled water. And even that, residents say, ran out.

Ramsden is among those who fear the taps being turned off again at any moment, saying that his home still has no supply at night. “I checked it again last night and there was none. South East Water monitor the wells, but they seem to have put nothing in place,” said the 79-year-old. He has lived Challock for 32 years, and this, he said, is by some distance the driest.

South East Water deny doing nothing, raising tensions further yesterday by appearing to blame the “interruption to supply” on customers’ excessive use of water during the recent heatwave.

Bewl Reservoir near Lamberhurst in Kent which is currently measured at 67% of its capacity
Bewl Reservoir near Lamberhurst in Kent is at 67% of its capacity. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA

Many of Challock’s 1,000 inhabitants believe it would still be without water if the parish council hadn’t lobbied their local MP, Damian Green, for help. “Within hours of him getting involved, the problem had been solved,” said Ramsden.

At the nearby Halfway House, which stands guard over a busy crossroads, pub landlord Lee was trying to make up for lost trade. Challock’s loss of water meant he had to close for almost an entire week until last Sunday.

“If you’ve got no water, you’ve got no toilets and you can’t open,” he said.

The Halfway House is a popular gastropub, but ordering food supplies became a gamble because no one could predict when the water would return. His chef, unable to bathe or shower, had to return to his family home in Hastings, East Sussex, for a wash.

With the Halfway House counting the loss of earnings, its landlord concedes that uncertainty has become part of the business landscape in this part of the county.

“Previously, we’ve had the odd day without electricity but this was something else. Some days we were told that the water would be back at 2pm then 5pm – and at 8pm we’d learn there would be none. When’s it going to happen again?”

Some of his patrons were equally perturbed. Sheltering from the scorching sun beneath an umbrella, Anna Butler from nearby Faversham said: “We need to rethink what we are doing with our water. We’re an island, surrounded by the stuff, we should start looking at desalination plants.”

Another victim of the village’s vanishing water supply was its primary school. Hayley Leavey described how the abrupt disappearance of the village water caused instant chaos. During the last week of term, she said the school opened for just a few hours, denying school-leavers the opportunity to say goodbye to their friends.

Challock Village, Kent
A parched Challock village in Kent. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

“Missing their last week of school was a bit rubbish, especially with everything else those kids have gone through during the last couple of years,” said the 39-year-old, whose three daughters attend the school.

“There was no warning about the water. Lots of people in the village have livestock and horses so it was a massive issue for people.”

Leavey added that the prospect of having no water again had spooked the village.

Dry weather is expected for weeks, hosepipe bans are predicted and locals fear that the underground wells that provide its water are perilously low. “Also, people have been getting narky because there was little or no communication with the water company,” said Leavey.

South East Water says that work is continuing to ensure there is no repeat. The company said it was investing £433m and investigating options to ensure the network was “more resilient to periods of high demand in future”. Damian Green has called for a new Kent reservoir.

Stressing that supplies to Challock had been normal since last Monday, the firm’s operations director, Douglas Whitfield, explained that, despite the company producing an extra 120 million litres a day, other customers had exhausted it before it actually reached the booster pumps that supported the village’s water supply.

Leavey complains that villagers still do not understand what happened. “It just seems that there’s no real explanation.

“We’ve had hot weather before but haven’t had to endure six days without water.”

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