Three experts from About Drought provided journalists with an insight into the impact of the UK summer drought – Jamie Hannaford, Professor Jim Hall and Professor Ian Holman. Answering questions from the Daily Mail, Press Association, BBC, Telegraph and Financial Times they presented detailed but accessible information on the pressure on water resources, highlighting the way new data from the programme is already supporting decision-makers, such as the Environment Agency. Articles were published in the Daily Mail, The Sun, Telegraph and Mail Online.
This briefing note looks at the effects of water scarcity and drought on crops which require supplemental irrigation, and includes some ideas on steps which may help to mitigate losses to farmers. This is the first of a series of briefs to support improved decision making in relation to droughts and water scarcity.
We are currently experiencing a heatwave in the UK and other parts of Europe – with a hosepipe ban in place in Ireland. Climatic change causes greater unreliability of rainfall in wetter countries like the UK, as well as increased frequency of droughts, leading to higher demand for irrigation to supplement rainfall. The yield and quality of crops of fruit and vegetables can be lowered by short-term drought in the UK summer – this can be avoided by using irrigation to supplement rainfall, enabling farmers to continue to provide supermarket-quality produce.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more news on MaRIUS visit the project website.
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