Impact of the Media Drought in South-East England

Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast Four

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

Transcript of Podcast Four: Impact of the Media Drought in South-East England

Hello again and welcome to episode four in the Who’d had thought that, about drought podcast series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and I am using this edition to pose a question: how, when, and through which media should we discuss droughts?

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 © Karen Roe CC-BY-2.0
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 by Karen Roe, licenced under CC BY 2.0

The 2004 – 2006 drought was once described by Philip Eden as one that was largely political, “characterised by extensive ‘spin’” (Eden, 2008, p160).

From my perspective, this drought coincided with a peak in interest in climate change and climate modelling. And at the same time, a peak in criticism of so-called fat-cat executives. Broadsheet newspapers regularly covered global warming as a topic, and still the scientific community were pushing against a heavy-weight of climate denial. Authors like Fred Pearce were busy writing end-of-life as we know it books like The Last Generation, warning us of the revenge nature would take against us for filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and the weather certainly did appear to be changing. However, as the drought slowly developed, and hosepipe bans appeared, it was water company bosses who were criticised for taking large salaries and bonuses whilst their companies invested too little in repairing ageing infrastructure and preventing leaks. Not much had changed in that respect since 1995. Housing developers also came into the frame for building in places where there appeared not to be quite enough water to go around. This political hot-potato that no one wanted to face up to created a void that was filled by the media through endless column inches on gardening tips, Mediterranean planting schemes and water-saving devices.

It seemed as though the media were used to maintain the dialogue about dwindling water resources while water companies in the South-East entered into a battle of brinkmanship each waiting to see who would break first and have to apply for a drought order.

Gardeners were naturally concerned. Panic buying of water butts ensued and arguments began to rumble on in some sectors about the potential impacts of further water use restrictions.

With large parts of the UK unaffected, it is not surprise to me that I have had few people say they can remember this drought. After all, it appears to most that it was just all media hype and in the end, no severe disruption to services was felt. But what was it like to be in an industry where access to large quantities of water was critical to survival. I’m talking about the Horticultural industry.

I spoke to Bob about his long career in horticulture, which resulted in his being in charge of the Chelsea Flower Show throughout the noughties. We compared his experience of the 1976 drought when he was running a busy parks department on the Devon Riviera with the difficulty of trying to prepare for Chelsea, knowing that a drought order, if sought by Thames Water, might prevent it from going ahead. Here’s Bob on 1976…

Bob “I couldn’t help but remember the 1976 drought because probably for the first time in anyone’s memory, of anyone I was working with at the time, we suddenly saw that we couldn’t maintain what we were formerly maintaining with tap water. That suddenly became a no. There was a hosepipe ban being introduced; standpipes were being talked about, if not implemented, in the South Devon area, and there was no way that we could use tap water to water plants; it would’ve been outrageous. So we had to think of other means to do that, and one of the means was to take water which was in a local stream in Paignton, a stream which went on out to sea, extracting water from that, putting it in tankers and then transporting it round to the 12 bowling greens we had in the borough, plus a number of other ornamental horticultural features that needed maintaining. Of course, in manpower, it became quite an exercise, and let alone other resources that we needed, like hiring tankers. Tankers which, interestingly enough, might’ve been employed doing other things. For example, the tankers which would normally have to go round an empty out gullies for dealing with storm water and having debris in them… They were all bone dry, so they really didn’t have anything to do, so it was great that we could commandeer those to come and do other things. We then managed to maintain the areas and keep areas alive and functional at least for the summer.”

And here’s Bob on that agonisingly difficult time trying to decide what best to do for Chelsea…

Bob “Well, I think the position is that whilst you’re able to use mains water out of the tap, everything’s pretty hunky dory, isn’t it? Because you have potable water; you’re able to drink it; nobody really cares whether you put it on plants because it’s quite plentiful. But I think as soon as you have these drought type conditions and people start questioning what you’re doing, it begs so many questions about the ethic approach that you should be taking, and the ethical questions are all about… Is it right, then, to hold a flower show at all, or shouldn’t we hold it? And if we are going to hold it, how do you manage it and how do you keep it alive? If you don’t hold it – and just being absolutely blunt about it – it would make a more than considerable hole in the finances of an organisation like the RHS, who have increasingly relied more upon its income from Chelsea to maintain all the other activities it’s involved in. You take that out; what’s it not going to do? Is it not going to maintain some of its gardens? Is it going to get rid of all its gardeners? Is it going to stop running some of its horticultural work that it carries out so valuably? So I guess some of the problems we had to face was the fact that it was almost inconceivable that we would not have Chelsea flower show. It was perhaps more conceivable that there might be other shows that we wouldn’t run in a drought situation. But Chelsea had been through everything in a hundred years. It wasn’t quite a hundred years old in 2004, but it was in 2013. It didn’t run during the war years, either the first or the second, because the Royal Hospital grounds were used for growing vegetables during those periods, but on the other hand, a lot of that was demonstrable ways in which the nation decided to get on with life, wasn’t it? So that was good. You could almost argue that when we were faced with really hot weather, it was another demonstrable reason to show how we could overcome it. And so we needed to explore every way in which we could still hold the show without necessarily using mains water for anything other than giving to people to drink. And I always remember some of the arguments we had about that, because people used to get very hostile and write to us, or raise the question, “This is terrible the RHS are still holding this show with all these people coming to it,” but of course, the argument about that is, that we’re not eliminating people. They’re transpositioned people who instead of spending the day in Devon, they’re going to spend it in London. But arguably, they’re not going to drink any more in London than in Devon. The long and short of it is we decided at some considerable cost to have our own borehole, which we would then, regardless of whether there was a drought order, use that as a statement of fact of how we were going to run the show. We would use water from the borehole for flushing the loos with at Chelsea, and for watering plants – in other words, for non-potable use.”

Well, I never expected the RHS to eventually sink a borehole to secure water supplies that would be outside a drought order. But I think it is fair to say that newspaper speculation combined with not knowing how things were going to play out, necessitated this quite drastic and expensive outcome.

We’ll be talking about the ways in which drought is communicated, how and why communications happen the way they do, and the best ways to communicate in a crisis, at the About Drought Showcase on March 14th. I look forward to meeting some of you there.

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

© Dr Rebecca Pearce, University of Exeter, 2018

Water Saving Campaigns in focus: 1976, 1983 and Yorkshire in 1995

Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast Three

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

Transcript of Podcast Three: Water Saving Campaigns in focus: 1976, 1983 and Yorkshire in 1995

Hello, welcome to podcast three in the Who’d have thought that, About Drought series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and if you have been following us so far, I’ve been talking about droughts with lots of different people and I for one have found in every conversation, something quite new and interesting to talk about. I think after all the conversations I’ve recorded for the Historic Drought Oral History Collection, I know quite a lot about how we talk about droughts but what about you, the listener? Are you responsible for drought communications? Have you ever had to try and organise a water saving campaign? Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be on the front line, communicating with water users, when reserves run critically low?

Scammenden Dam, 1995, © Nick Wilding
Scammenden Dam, 1995, © Nick Wilding

Here’s Martin recalling his experiences working for the South West Water Authority in 1976:

Martin “Well, you can try your very best and the first stage in a water supply emergency is to put out lots of media campaigns, and South West Water started doing that, but it had no real political support from any of its predecessor local authorities. It had a very, very unfortunate reactive relationship with the media. So it never put out any good news, it never put out any positive news, it just hid in its bunker and when someone said something nasty about it it didn’t react. So, it didn’t really have a relationship with local political representatives to any great degree, and it didn’t have it with the media. So when it started putting out stuff saying, “Things are getting tight, we’ve got to save water”, there’s a mixture of some people listening and saying, “Oh yes, I can understand there’s a problem” to other people saying, “This a joke” to other people saying, “If they want us to save water they’ve got another thing coming.” Interestingly a lot of the visitors who came down said, “I’ve paid for my holiday, I’m going to have as much water as I like in my two-week holiday, and so long as there’s still some water there when I go, that’s it, it doesn’t matter, I’ve had my holiday.” So you had this big set of conflicting responses coming back, and most people are angry that the authority had let them down. They hadn’t, they didn’t have a system to cope with a drought of this severity. They felt the authority should have, but the authority hadn’t had the money, hadn’t had the time to invest in anything.”

Mmm does that sound familiar? I think that could be a fair description of the relationship between water suppliers and water users in any drought. In episode two we explored some of the ways people coped with water rationing in 1976. Let’s hear some more from Martin.

Martin “People did their best to eke out new supplies or turn to supplies and reduce these compensation flows that were in the rivers. So everything was done to try and keep as much water available as possible. I did meet a couple in Salcombe, who were making prodigious efforts to save water, and they were both in their seventies. They’d taken their little allowance of water for the day, which they’d decided on, which was something like two kettles of water, and they’d manage to use that in a combination of cooking, and then dishwashing and then personal washing, and then lastly putting it on the garden to try and keep the vegetables alive. I thought, “This is extraordinary, these are people who’ve taken the message on, and interpreted in their own way from their recollections of what it was like to be really short of things during the war, and they’ve applied their moral code to using almost no water at all.” Then you’d see some massive great house a bit further down the road with people splashing around in a swimming pool, and you’d think, the business of getting a big different social group to behave in one way isn’t possible. You can impose, you can dictate, you can shut things off, you can do everything you want, but unless people agree with you, it won’t happen.
This split between people who do their bit, those who don’t and quite frankly those who complain is definitely evident in the local news reporting of the time. I think it is fair to say the water authority was criticised and reports of this criticism were aired but the papers did not directly accuse the water authority of mis-management. They let others do that via the letters pages.”

Now here’s Martin recalling a drought in the 1980s. Had anything changed I wonder…?

Martin “But there was one interesting appeal we put out in the 1983 drought, that was carried by the radio companies and so on, and we got a phone call from a chap from Bodmin. He said, “I heard your appeal on the radio to save water, I just want to let you know, that I’m off on holiday for two weeks, and I’m locking up the house, but I’ve left all my taps on, and I hope you run out of water” and he put the phone down.”

Rebecca “Really?”

Martin “I said, “This is magic, we’re actually getting a public response.” The fact that it’s 180 degrees different to the one we wanted, we have to put on one side. Someone has actually bothered to get in touch with us.”

Rebecca “Yes, they are communicating.”

Martin “Yes, they are communicating. So, you know, from planet headquarters to the real world, there were some beginnings of interaction.”

Who’d have thought someone would be so cross with their water authority that they would deliberately try to waste as much water as possible and who’d have thought that Martin would be so pleased to receive his call?! But how difficult is it for people to receive and accept directions from planet headquarters and are there better ways of communicating with people when we are in a tight spot?

On another planet in another time – Yorkshire Water in 1995 to be precise, Geoff was busy trying to get different departments within the company to share information relating to the looming water shortage in the Halifax area.

Geoff “Yes, you mentioned cultural change and that cultural change Um, looking back, the change from being erm, an Authority to a Company probably took fifteen years.”

Rebecca “Right”

Geoff “The culture, even in the mid-(19)90s. When was privatisation? 89 I think, or somewhere around there anyway. In the mid-(19)90s the culture was an engineering culture, sometimes caricatured in terms of drinking water supply, caricatured as ‘if it’s wet, it’ll do!’, which was less and less the case.”
Yeah, I spent a long time trying to, well not trying to, we did change the culture eventually but it’s a slow process and it was embedded in the way that this emerging water supply situation because it wasn’t called a drought for a very long time, the way the emerging water supply situation was being handled. It was being handled behind closed doors in a technical way, without any thought about customers and the potential implications about customers.”

So did we stop talking about droughts in the 1990s? The local newspapers didn’t but there appears to have been a change to the way information was communicated. I’m looking at an article from the Halifax Courier reporting on the fact that Yorkshire water intends to apply for a drought order introducing rota cuts in 15 days’ time. The headline says it all: Deplorable! It cries; Health Chiefs demand probe into Yorkshire Water. The prospect of 24-hour rota cuts is a great cause of concern to public health teams. The article is placed next to the Water company’s Water Watch campaign information, which is simply a factual update of the water shortage.

It says: Reservoir Levels – Yesterday 14.4%, Tuesday, 14.6%, Monday 15%, to give readers the sense of the rapidly dropping water levels. Under this there is rainfall yesterday 0mm, rain for the month, 56.6mm, and then Demand – yesterday, 53.3 thousand cubic metres, Tuesday 52.1 thousand cubic metres. Do you get the picture?

The now infamous tanker drought caused a lot of upset in West Yorkshire but the facts are that reservoirs in West Yorkshire were small and there was not system in place to easily transfer water from the East where supplies were plentiful, to the west. Nevertheless, local people were very unforgiving and local papers were happy to print readers letters that were in the main, critical of the company, alongside the factual and informative water watch campaign.
In the next podcast we’ll continue looking at how communicate in a crisis as we take a look at the two-year drought that mainly affected the south east of England between 2004 and 2006.

In the meantime, you can find more references to the 1995 drought from the Yorkshire Post, Halifax Courier and Hebden Bridge Times, in the Historic Drought Inventory.

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

© Dr Rebecca Pearce, University of Exeter, 2018