News review: perceptions of water in Britain

Print media reacted to the Environment Agency’s briefing in early January on low groundwater levels and the prospect of a summer drought with headlines ranging from ‘Floody drought’ (The Sun) to ‘Drenched by the wrong kind of rain’ (The i).  As Southern Water applied for an abstraction permit journalists were given a background briefing putting the application into context.

UK Drought Jan 2018 print media montage by Sally Stevens, Institute for Environmental Analytics
UK Drought Jan 2018 print media montage by Sally Stevens, Institute for Environmental Analytics

‘Floody Drought’, ‘Drenched by the wrong type of rain’: headlines that pick up the contradictory nature of Britain’s relationship with water and an underpinning perception that Britain is a land of plenty – at least when it comes to water. But hiding behind these headlines, published in January 2018, is the real challenge: for the British Isles rely on fairly regular rainfall and rather wet winters to ensure a plentiful water supply.

As the headlines suggest, the South East experienced a dry autumn and, if followed by a dry winter, the area would have been at risk of drought in summer 2018. This would not have meant standpipes in the streets and we were not approaching day zero (when the city runs out of water), as Cape Town had. But the result of the Environment Agency’s briefing should have provided pause for thought and an opportunity for communities to consider their drought resilience (and the measures they could take now to mitigate against the risk of hosepipe bans in the summer). But it didn’t.

Trying to engage the public and communities with the risks of water shortage is hard at the best of times. Britain is perceived to be a rather wet island surrounded by plenty of water. This challenge to communication, though, is particularly hard in the winter because there is a perceptual link between drought and hot weather. If it’s not hot, it can’t be a drought. This perception makes winter droughts amongst the most challenging to communicate. How do you explain to someone who perceives that it’s dull and overcast (and therefore wet) that we’re heading for a drought?

And so we return to the wrong type of headlines. ‘Floody drought’ may be an attempt to link text to the water cycle, but how does it help people to understand that indeed drought may be followed by floods? Better a headline linking flood to the wrong type of rain. Headline writers love a contradiction: ‘Drenched UK might still see a hosepipe ban’ fits the bill but doesn’t help to address the problem of water resources and growing demand.

Newspapers may seek to grab our attention through these contradictory headlines, but unless readers go beyond the headline and start to understand Britain’s complex relationship with water, they will only reinforce stereotypes. In the face of climate change, it’s time to change those stereotypes.

Event debrief: Seasonal Forecasting – Meeting User Needs

The About Drought programme collaborated with the British Hydrological Society, University of Reading and University of Loughborough to present a national workshop on seasonal forecasting.

Rebecca Emberton (University of Reading) presenting to BHS meeting in January 2018, copyright Nevil Quinn UWE
Rebecca Emberton (University of Reading) presenting to BHS meeting in January 2018, copyright Nevil Quinn UWE

The aim of the workshop, held in Loughborough in January 2018, was to focus on the seasonal forecast needs of users and practitioners, and to identify ways of improving the dissemination, uptake and operationalisation of seasonal forecasts by the water and agricultural sectors.

Reliable seasonal forecasts can support planning of water resources for a variety of purposes, including allocation for urban and rural water supply, irrigation scheduling, reservoir operation, routine maintenance of infrastructure, and preparedness for hydro-meteorological extremes. In recent years, improvements have been made in seasonal forecasting skill. However, without translation of these state-of-the-art forecast products into direct, actionable information, little ‘real’ progress can be made.

Rebecca Emberton (University of Reading) is pictured discussing global scale seasonal hydrometeorological forecasting with the Global Flood Awareness System at a national workshop on seasonal forecasting.

Event debrief: 9th International Corpus Linguistics conference

Carmen Dayrell from the ESRC Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Science (CASS), Lancaster University, has presented her work with Helen Baker and Tony McEnery on a diachronic analysis of newspaper articles about drought and water scarcity at the 9th International Corpus Linguistics conference (CL2017). Corpus linguistics is a methodology for the systematic analysis of large amounts of empirical data to study language. The CL2017 was hosted by the University of Birmingham, from 24-28 July 2017.

Carmen Dayrell of Lancaster University, image copyright Mathew Gillings @mathewgillings
Carmen Dayrell of Lancaster University, image copyright Mathew Gillings @mathewgillings

Entitled ‘Enriching our understanding of historic drought and water scarcity: investigating 200 years of news texts’, the paper discussed the media representation of drought and water scarcity throughout the United Kingdom, covering two hundred years of newspaper data, from 1800 to 2014.

The results showed that, throughout the entire period, drought events were portrayed as intense and prolonged, with negative impacts of across the country, especially England. But the analysis also unveils some interesting shifts in the discourse. While references to drought the 19th and most of the 20th centuries overwhelmingly related to lack of rain, the word drought started to be used increasingly more frequent as a metaphor towards the end of the 20th century. These mainly related to sporting achievements (e.g. goal, trophy or scoring droughts) and finance (credit, mortgage droughts).

Another clear shift relates to people’s concerns. In the 19th century, the newspapers frequently mentioned the impact of droughts on farming and agriculture. From the 1990s onwards, the focus seems to have shifted to constraints and limitations in people’s daily lives due to shortage or rationing of water, which in turn led to the introduction of hosepipe bans or the use of standpipes. Concern over the impact of droughts on plants and gardens has become one of the major topic in the contemporary broadsheet papers and tabloids.

About Drought Showcase March 14: Thank you

Thank you to all the delegates who attended the About Drought Showcase in Birmingham. Around 120 people representing a very broad range of interests and expertise joined us to connect with the truly interdisciplinary research initiative that is the RCUK Drought & Water Scarcity programme. Outputs from the day will be available to view in the updated e-delegate pack and slides and other outputs from each session will be available on this website in due course. In the meantime you can keep in touch with us on Twitter @AboutDrought and sign up to our newsletter mailing list via the home page.

Jamie Hannaford of CEH presenting at the About Drought Showcase, March 2018
Jamie Hannaford of CEH presenting at the About Drought Showcase, March 2018. Image © Stephen Turner, CEH
Professor Lindsay McEwen of UWE at the About Drought Showcase in March 2018, standing by the Drought Risk and You (DRY) project stand
Professor Lindsay McEwen of UWE at the About Drought Showcase in March 2018. Image © Sally Stevens, IEA
Jamie Hannaford of CEH at the About Drought Showcase in March 2018
Jamie Hannaford of CEH at the About Drought Showcase in March 2018. Image © Sally Stevens, IEA

Event debrief: ENDOWS communities stakeholders meeting 27th Oct 2017

Which communities and why?

How best do we connect a diverse range of publics and communities with research arising from the NERC Drought and Water Scarcity research programme? This was one of the themes discussed at the first Community Stakeholder workshop held at the University of the West of England, Bristol on 27th October 2017. Stakeholders represented a range of organisations interacting with public and community groups, from water companies and local government to wildlife trusts. Discussions highlighted the need to move beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in knowledge exchange and tackle those groups able to make water savings, but who have little recognition of the increasing risks of water scarcity in Britain. The need for sustained interaction with key intermediary groups and gatekeepers, as well as production of targeted and tailored materials for those with different prior levels of capital or interest also featured in the wide-ranging discussions. This group will form the basis for building a ‘community of practice’ developing and testing evidence that can be used in engaging publics/communities in drought risk decision-making.

Event debrief: ENDOWS business stakeholders meeting 31st Oct 2017

Business impacts of water scarcity

If your business didn’t have access to water or sufficient water quality, what would the impacts be? What are the priorities for businesses when it comes to information about drought and water scarcity? These were two of the themes discussed at a Business Stakeholder workshop held at the University of the West of England, Bristol, on Tuesday 31st October 2017. Stakeholders representing water companies, energy companies, and farmer-facing and public-service organisations attended to feed their views into the ENDOWS work programme. Discussions highlighted uncertainty about the future, and the need for earlier warning systems – for businesses to understand with greater lead time when water restrictions would occur (the later the warnings, the more expensive it becomes). Other workshop outcomes included:

  • The diversity of different types of business, water use and hence vulnerability to drought and water scarcity was acknowledged; it was also recognised that there will be opportunities for some businesses.
  • The need of some businesses for information to fill the ‘blind spot’ between weather forecasting (which becomes unreliable after 2 weeks), and seasonal forecasting (which is more reliable 3-4 months ahead), which would allow them to plan more effectively. There are also issues with the ability of current science skillsets to fill this gap.
  • There is a possibility to group, and communicate with, businesses via the type of water extraction they use primarily: groundwater, surface water flows, storage reservoirs.
  • It can seem counterintuitive or be publically unacceptable that water scarcity measures need to be implemented in winter (perhaps when it’s raining), when water stocks are at their lowest. There was a feeling that it was easier to communicate about drought when it felt intuitive to do so (during hot, dry weather), and so these opportunities need to be maximised pragmatically by businesses. It is also necessary to bust some myths regarding droughts only occurring in summer!
  • Much of the focus so far has been on the quantity of water resources, but there is now more attention being given by businesses to water quality – and also to the way low flows may impact on filtration systems via, for e.g., eutrophic blooms of certain organisms.
  • Trade-offs between using water for cooling systems, for example, and alternatives, must be balanced – as many alternative coolants may include harmful chemicals or require greater energy use.
  • Several in the group deemed it important to take account of the way information about water actually travels to consumers – often via intermediaries such as water retail companies or agronomists – rather than being conveyed directly from suppliers.

It was seen as essential not to create yet another selection of disaggregated tools, but to think about what integrated platforms the DWS outputs can build towards. One such example platform is the US government’s National Integrated Drought Information System, where visitors can drill down to find out more about drought in their region. Sharing data from locally collected sources on central, open platforms was seen as important, yet there are disincentives for businesses to cooperate, as it may put them at competitive disadvantage.

Workshop discussions also emphasised the need to make case studies and information relevant to specific business sectors, and a case for ‘knowing your own water data’ – i.e. encouraging scientific measurement within businesses, rather than this being outsourced and therefore distanced from the people with the greatest interest in the business.

Event debrief: MaRIUS LIVE! London, Nov 2017

MaRIUS LIVE! Managing the risks, impacts and uncertainties of droughts and water scarcity was held on the 2nd of November 2017.

Trevor Bishop, Director of Strategy and Planning at OFWAT, described MaRIUS as “one of the most important bits of research that we’ve seen in drought and water scarcity” as more than 80 delegates met to hear presentations setting out the findings of the project’s research and the outputs available for use.

still from event video available on YouTube

Trevor gave the opening address with Professor Jim Hall, Director of the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, PI of MaRIUS, summarising the project for audience members representing water and energy companies, regulators, consultancies and researchers.

The project researchers took the opportunity to outline their findings on the effect of drought on people and the environment, covering topics of governance, communities, drought management , hydrology, water quality and resources, aquatic and terrestrial ecology, agriculture, the economy and electricity supply.

Feedback from the half-day event has been very positive with the project’s datasets generating particular interest. Films will shortly be available from MaRIUS Live! One giving an overview and flavour of the event – including an interview with Trevor Bishop on the value of MaRIUS – and the others featuring the series of presentations. All links will be published here on AboutDrought and the MaRIUS website.

If you attended MaRIUS LIVE! But have not yet given your feedback, please complete the feedback form.

The post event delegate pack, including slide presentations and other materials, are now available. Links to Videos of the presentations are listed on this website.

For more news on MaRIUS visit the project website.

UK Hydrological Situation Update December 2017

Drought and Water Scarcity Programme researchers from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and the British Geological Survey have published an overview of the current hydrological status of the UK.

The hydrological situation in November, showing river flows (left) and groundwater levels (right). ©NERC

Like a fish out of water: water scarcity, and even drought, can be surprisingly local

The notion that it always rains is a pillar of the British psyche, but does it really? Real droughts only occur in far-away lands, or do they? But the truth is that water scarcity can be both common and very localised, and even when very local it can still have significant impacts. The current situation in a part of the Wye catchment, illustrates this well.

2017 was a dry year. Figure 1a shows early spring and summer rainfall expressed relative to the average in the last 30 years. Brown patches (see the red circle) over Herefordshire point to particularly low rainfall in parts of the Wye river catchment in August and September 2017 (Figure 1b+c).  Taking the six months from April to September as a whole, shows a shortage of rainfall along this part of the English-Welsh border (Figure 1d). Figure 3 shows that October was also a very dry month for the whole country.

Does such a localised shortage of rainfall really matter? Probably not for most people; our reservoirs and water supply systems are designed to cope with periods of low rainfall, ensuring water reaches your tap. So unless you are a farmer dependent on rain, we are generally protected from shorter term water scarcity.

But what of the natural environment? Low rainfall can have a direct impact on river flows. The extent to which river flows are affected depends on the catchment (the geographical area from which water flows into a river system). It also depends on your local geology, and whether these rocks are able to store water. Some catchments, like chalk streams, are quite robust because water filters through the rock during period of high rainfall, is held there and is then released when it’s dry.

But the Wye is not a chalk stream and the geology in this area does not allow water to penetrate easily and be stored as groundwater. Instead, when it rains heavily in the Wye catchment, most of the water runs off, leaving the catchment. Without this groundwater supply, the Wye is vulnerable, even when the dry weather lasts only 6 months. Our river plants and animals are used to summer periods with naturally lower river flows, but they are not adapted to extended periods of low rainfall. Unlike countries where rivers dry up seasonally, our river wildlife have not evolved ways of surviving these harsh conditions.

So, if you are a fish in the Wye catchment, recent dry weather spells bad news. In fact so bad, that in some areas flow was so low that the river had separated into pools. In the River Dore near Peterchurch, Herefordshire, earlier this month (13 to 16 October) the Environment Agency had to rescue fish stranded in diminishing pools of water. On the 14th October, 47 trout, 24 lamprey and 8 eels were rescued and moved to safety by Environment Agency staff.  These problems have not just been limited to the Wye catchment. On the 16th October the Environment Agency’s Chris Bainger tweeted to draw attention to the fact that water levels on the River Teme at Ludlow in the adjacent Severn catchment, were so low that they were preventing the upstream migration of salmon.

Since then, we’ve had rain, so it’s all right now? Well, no. Recent rain has had little effect on water levels and fish rescues continue, with minnow recently removed from what remained of the Eign Brook in Hereford.

These examples highlight the severe impacts to fish and other wildlife that can occur during periods of localised water scarcity. Sustained dry weather can lead to complete loss of habitat as rivers break into pools that dry up. Important ecological functions such as salmon migration are also disrupted, as just one indicator of fragmentation of connected habitats upon which river life and natural processes depend. Climate change is likely to increase the frequency of these periods of low rainfall and what might seem a freak incident this year is likely to become a more regular occurrence in the next decades.

The Drought and Water Scarcity research programme, funded by UK Research Councils, is addressing these concerns. We would like to hear from you about the ways dry weather is affecting your river systems. If you have stories like the ones above, and would like to contribute your views or would just like to stay in touch with developments in the research programme, please contact the co-ordinator of the environment work stream, Associate Professor Nevil Quinn (nevil.quinn@uwe.ac.uk). Further information can be found elsewhere on this website, including more information about the Drought and Water Scarcity research programme.

Article authors: Nevil Quinn*, Emma Weitkamp*, Francois Edwards+ and Cédric Laizé+, 26 October 2017
* University of the West of England, Bristol  + Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford

Planning for drought in England

In England, water companies have plans that set out the actions they take before, during and after episodes of drought to ensure security of supply of water. The drought plans also describe how they will assess the effects on the environment and what they can do to mitigate any damage. The plans are revised regularly, every five years, following public consultation. Water companies are undertaking such a review at the moment. Current and draft plans are available on water company websites.

Water companies use knowledge of past droughts and potential future drought intensity combined with information about current conditions to guide them through a staged response to episodes of drought. Every few years drought severity is such that water companies expect to warn customers through radio, newspapers and social media that water resources are relatively low in their region and to use water sparingly. Less frequently, in anticipation of a more significant drought, water companies may introduce temporary use bans, popularly known as ‘hosepipe bans’. If a severe drought is anticipated, water companies can ask the Secretary of State for a Drought Order to ban nonessential use where more extensive restrictions apply. They may also apply to the Environment Agency for permits to take additional water from sources in their region. Under the most extreme conditions water companies may apply to the Secretary of State for additional powers, for example to apply rota cuts. However, water companies may never plan to reach this level since it would involve droughts worse than any on record.

The Environment Agency also has a drought plan, available on the gov.uk website, that, amongst other things, sets out how the Environment Agency monitors and measures the impacts of drought, and how it reports on the drought and communicates with others. All water companies, as well as the Environment Agency, see good communications with water users as vital to the successful management of water resources during a drought.

Links:

Environment Agency drought management for England
Map and list of water supply companies in England and Wales, including links to websites