WATER leaks have “doubled” in some areas during the ongoing drought as the dry earth is causing underground pipe damage.
Firms say the heatwave has caused the problem which has put severe pressure on an already creaking water system.
A warning from the Environment Agency also said the country’s infrastructure needs upgrading or the UK’s faces the prospect of water shortages in the next 25 years.
Around three billion litres of water is lost every day to leaks in England, according to reports.
The water regulator Ofwat, however, said provisional figures suggested three quarters of water companies were meeting their leakage targets.
Thames Water, which supplies to 15million people in the south and south east England, confirmed it has seen a doubling in the number of leaks reported on its system since July 19 when temperatures rose above 40C.
Its pipe had already been leaking 624m litres of water a day and put the cause of the new leaks down to the movement of the earth damaging pipes as it dries out.
Government sources indicated that other water suppliers were seeing similar issues, according to a report in The Sunday Times.
Anglian Water denied the number of leaks on its network had double but said the dry conditions meant it had devoted 500 people to work on the leaks.
A spokesperson for the company said: “Leakage always goes up temporarily when we get extremes of any type of weather because it places unusual pressure on the network – dry, hot, wet, doesn’t matter. It’s not doubled though and is not to do with the fire service, or the condition of our pipes, but rather changes in ground conditions. What matters is that we anticipate it, we’ve staffed up accordingly, and it’s not a surprise to us.”
David Beale, a consultant engineering hydrologist, told the paper: “The trees are extracting the remaining water so the ground is shrinking slightly and the old cast-iron Victorian water mains, and the plastic pipes of the 1970s, can’t cope with it.
“The problem is that the government is not taking climate change seriously. Things will get worse but there’s nothing seriously done about it.”
Water Minister Steve Double last night told supply firms to put their customers ahead of their shareholders and warned they faced fines if they didn’t fix the leaks.
He told The Mail on Sunday that he expected better from the suppliers and said they could face further action if they didn’t make progress soon.
An investigation by the paper found that water companies have paid £3billion in dividends this year to shareholders, money which could have been used to repair leaks, stop sewage pollution, build new infrastructure and help peg household bills.
The paper also revealed that water firms have debts of more than £60bn, with interest alone rising by almost £1b last year.
Currently, more than 30m people in England and Wales face or are already under restrictions which dictate the amount of water they can use.
Welsh Water, Southern Water and South East Water have already imposed hosepipe bans and Yorkshire Water has announced a ban will begin on August 26.
Thames Water has also warned it could introduce a ban within weeks.
Mr Double last night said: “Water companies must continue to invest more, including to prevent leakage and work faster to fix leaks.
“We are losing somewhere between 15 to 20 per cent annually through leakage, which is not acceptable.
“Progress has been made but my message to water companies is they need to prioritise customers, not shareholder returns. If we don’t see the progress we expect, we won’t hesitate to take further action.
“The public and Government rightly expect more from our water companies.”
Locals in one Surrey village were forced to queue up for bottled water after supplies from Thames Water failed because of “technical issues” at its Netley Mill water treatments works.