Environment and Climate Change Minister Elliot Morley is urging consumers, businesses and water companies to stop wasting the precious resource, as a serious shortage could soon wreak havoc to communities and businesses across the south-east of England.

For the second winter running we have seen less rain than expected, especially in the south east of England. Speaking at the water industry conference 'Source 2006', Mr Morley insisted that the current dry spell could have major implications.

"People will remember the hosepipe bans of last summer, when low rainfall was a cause for concern. Six months on some of those bans are still in effect as the dry winter adds to pressure on the water supply. Speculation this week about the prospect of serious drought across the region is not misplaced.

"Emergency measures, such as the use of standpipes, aren't inevitable this summer. But we need to take steps now to ensure that we are using water sensibly.

"No single body can make this happen. It is not simply down to the water companies, or to Government, or to consumers, to take action. Only a joint effort from every one of us to understand what we can do, and then do it, will reduce the risk of shortages. Water companies rely on winter rain to top up reservoirs, rivers and groundwater, from where they obtain their tapwater. In the south east of England almost three quarters of the public supply comes from groundwater, which generally takes longer to recharge than a reservoir, and the drought-stricken area can experience tremendous demand for water. Although drought is a natural phenomenon, water companies have drought plans designed to set out the measures necessary to maintain a water supplies.

Water companies are currently drafting new plans for submission to the Secretary of State by the end of March, and these plans are expected to set out a range of measures that may be necessary to maintain supplies at differing drought intensities. Measures the companies could include range from; hose pipe bans, applications for drought permits(to increase abstraction), and drought orders. These restrict non essential uses like the watering of parks and golf courses, and the filling of private swimming pools.

Mr Morley insists there will be plenty of sources of help and guidance should the current drought intensify. "Consumers and businesses can telephone water companies for advice on making more efficient use of their water. This doesn't mean draconian cutbacks, but common sense ways of ensuring water isn't just wasted.

"Action by consumers must be matched by action from water companies, and I am expecting water companies to use the range of options set out in their Drought Plans. This will maximise efficiency and minimize disruption to supply.

"In England and Wales companies have achieved nearly a 30% reduction in leakage since 1994, which equates to the amount of water consumed by 10 million people. "Consumers and businesses can help water companies make further reductions by reporting visible leaks. But some companies missed their targets last year, and their performance has to improve.

"They are reminded that their customers will expect them to demonstrate an improvement in leakage rates as one of the measures they take before seeking a drought order.