About Drought held up as an exemplar of research that has revolutionised the way the UK manages drought and water scarcity

Report back from the final event held at The Royal Society

The UK’s £12m Drought & Water Scarcity Programme, About Drought, has been praised as ‘an exemplar’ of interdisciplinary research by the head of UK Research & Innovation and ‘revolutionary in the way it has been delivered’ by a key stakeholder.

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UKRI, told a final meeting of policy-makers, water companies, regulators and researchers: “This is what a UKRI programme should be like: it’s an exemplar, a response to our changing world, absolutely interdisciplinary and providing a holistic view.

Influence of About Drought research

“The outcomes are good research that has influenced policy-making, for example the Environmental Framework, the Environment Agency and water companies.”

Drawing together the threats from increasing pressure on water supplies, demands for water, our changing climate and the increasing frequency of weather hazards including floods, Sir Mark said: “Drought is a significant challenge for the UK, equally challenging and as important as flooding. We are very good at managing the last emergency but tend to forget the next emergency. We need to reduce our exposure to flood and to drought.”

The event – the About Drought Download – drew together more than five years of NERC-funded research from a wide collaboration at The Royal Society in London on November 7, in an innovative and interactive format. It ranged from science to cinema, forecasting games to a ‘data bar’, the launch of a primary school book and a drought walk in St James’ Park, plus ‘fringe’ events such as the performance of a song written from community workshops, a photo booth and a ‘silent disco’ of podcasts.

Sir Mark highlighted the social science interventions and stakeholder engagement which stretched through the initial programme of four projects (Drought Risk & You, MaRIUS, IMPETUS and Historic Droughts) followed by a knowledge-sharing project, ENDOWS (known as About Drought) saying: “All this needs hydrologists, ecologists but social scientists as well.

Successful public engagement

“The public engagement is particularly impressive because one of the big challenges is how to communicate the risk to people who are thinking only about the last emergency.

“We all need to be better at communicating outcomes and impacts because if we are persuading Government to provide the money to support first-class research and innovation, we need to be much better at telling them what we do with that money – and this programme does that very well.”

Organisations and regulators that are already using the wide range of datasets and tools to better inform decisions, strategic planning and real-time decisions around water supply and drought presented alongside the programme’s key researchers.

Rob Lawson, chair of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) Water Resources panel and Director of Artesia Consulting, described the programme’s outputs as ‘the next paradigm shift’ in the UK’s understanding of drought, water resources and climate change.

He drew a dramatic analogy, saying: “If climate change is the shark then water scarcity and drought are the teeth. And this programme is one way to punch that shark in the teeth!

Changing drought strategies

“It has changed how we plan for drought, providing a ground-breaking cornucopia of drought information and access to data research tools, new techniques and new ways to plan for and to manage drought.”

Rob, who has taken part in a series of stakeholder workshops throughout the projects, also praised the wide engagement, saying: “The way this programme has been delivered over the last five years has been revolutionary, creative and imaginative, [this event has been] better than a conference of academic papers and what can sometimes be death by PowerPoint.”

He joined Sir Mark, policy-makers, regulators, water company executives and communities that have taken part in calling for continued engagement with the UK’s leading drought and water scarcity researchers and experts, saying: “We need to build on this work, this is not the end, just the beginning. We need to continue to work with researchers and the other sectors that will benefit.”

Meyrick Gough, Technical Planning Director of Water Resources South East (WRSE), thanked all the About Drought researchers for the difference their work has made to the UK’s resilience to drought, saying: “You have given us really good tools that really help us to understand the magnitude and impacts of droughts, that have been adapted by the industry and are being used. We need evidence, understanding and insights from research such as this [to support] the choices and interventions we make.”

Continuing the research & stakeholder community

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Investigator of About Drought and Principal Hydrologist at the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) described the whole programme as ‘one hell of a journey’.

He said: “What we have seen over the last couple of years underscores our continuing vulnerability to drought; an increasing gap between supply and demand going into the future; issues around abstraction, protecting the environment, social and cultural issues.

“We are currently seeing the effects of a very long dry period that we can trace back to 2016 with a couple of very dry winters. That dry spell hasn’t gone away, despite flood events.

“There are no international parallels to this research programme, the UK is the envy of many parts of the world in having this investment in drought research that is truly interdisciplinary.

“We will continue this community, we will look for opportunities to build even further on this work, this incredible momentum and engaged community. We have answered lots of questions but more have emerged along the way.”

Read more from stakeholders, users and experts in the About Drought Handbook. It contains all the datasets and data tool outputs from the 5-year programme aimed at supporting decision-makers at every level, sector organisations, consultants as well as researchers, links to published papers, and resources such as Report Cards. Read it online or download it here.

Paul Hammett, National Water Resources Specialist, National Farmers’ Union

Drought and Agriculture National Farmers’ Union

“Water scarcity is becoming an increasingly important issue in terms of overall management of water – in flood as well as drought. Likewise, the farming community is increasingly vulnerable to water scarcity both in terms of physical access and from regulation, for instance around abstraction.”

Paul Hammett, National Water Resources Specialist, National Farmers’ Union

Paul Hammett joined the MaRIUS project’s steering group having been appointed as the first National Farmers’ Union (NFU) National Water Resources Specialist in 2012, the year in which the UK faced its most serious water shortage since the 1976 drought.

He says: “Farmers are at the sharp end of regulation control during low river flows, and throughout the time of the UK Drought and Water Scarcity Research Programme we’ve had a series of dry summers which has made the need for better data very real.

Farming community is increasingly vulnerable

“Water scarcity is becoming an increasingly important issue in terms of overall management of water – in flood as well as drought. Likewise, the farming community is increasingly vulnerable to water scarcity both in terms of physical access and from regulation, for instance around abstraction.”

David Herdman, dairy farmer (and star of the first Drought Myth busting video)

The value of making improved and widely available access to at-a-glance data such as the UK Water Resources Portal which shows flows in more than 300 UK rivers is summed up by the dilemma faced by a Bedfordshire farmer shortly before Paul gave this interview. Having just planted a field of winter cabbage the NFU member out of the blue received a letter from the Environment Agency ordering him to stop irrigating because flow in the River Ouse had fallen below a particular level. The following week’s weather was dry and all the plants died.

Paul explains: “Not only did that farmer lose that crop he is now concerned that his buyer will mark him down as vulnerable to drought and will take the contract elsewhere, the shock was that the river levels were so low so late in the season.

“The way he can be helped in the future will be by having more information on what the flow is like in his river and what might happen at an earlier stage – just knowing that a week in advance could have avoided this situation.

“We would like to see more value added to the research programme to give users that extra granularity in information. If they know something is going to happen, even just one week’s warning will be helpful.

Local data on water availability

“The challenge for us all is that water availability is so localised – but it is also a great opportunity for people to understand that the power of some of About Drought’s research outputs is such that it can go down to a reasonably local level and that’s exactly where we need to get.”

Like many of About Drought’s stakeholders, the challenge for the NFU has been in both staying abreast of the broad range of activities, events and outputs, picking out what is relevant to their sector and having the resource to match the scientific and academic outputs.

ENDOWS’ mission to co-develop data into usable and accessible data visualisations and products through feedback and workshops has been highly valued by our sector partners but they nevertheless say that even more could be done and that they are loathed to lose the effective community and connections that have been built.

Paul says: “Pre-programme, the NFU had existing good contacts with Cranfield University and the benefit of About Drought has been a widening of that sort of access, it has been really useful to have an improved relationship with the likes of the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH).

“The main benefits to being involved have been making sure that tools are being developed to help farmers manage the risk of water scarcity and I am really interested in what ENDOWS will do next to support the farming community in the application of the data.

DRY captured the impacts on farmers

“Also the DRY project has enabled us to capture more of the impacts of drought on farmers which are sometimes under-represented because not a lot of them are statistical.

Farming needs to take full advantage of the opportunities presented to us but farmers are basically self-employed businesses or SMEs (small to medium enterprises) and as such struggle to justify taking a day away from work to join events – it’s an issue across the board in everything we do. So we were really pleased when DRY adapted to their circumstances and set up an early evening teleconference that was joined by 15 farmers from across the country.”

DRY’s innovative, interdisciplinary and regional approach empowered farmers and rural communities to tell their stories which have been recorded as conversations, podcasts, songs and videos and are available through the DRY Utility online searchable database. Father and daughter Cambridgeshire dairy farmers David and Fran Herdman featured in one of a series of drought myth-busting videos produced by the University of the West of England talking about how their business is affected by drought.

Paul says: “It is a really good example of the benefit of the programme to the agricultural community.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Trevor Bishop, Director, Water Resources South East & MD of H2Outcomes

Translating academic research for policy-makers

“About Drought has brought policy-makers, scientists and academics together and that is becoming more important because the complexities and uncertainties in the science are fundamental to making the best policy decisions, especially with climate change playing an increasing role”

Trevor Bishop, Director, Water Resources South East & MD of H2Outcomes

The person in the driving seat of the UK’s response to the 2012 drought was Trevor Bishop, then Deputy Director of Water Resources at the Environment Agency and Ofwat’s Director for Strategy & Planning during the 2018 hot dry summer of peak demand.

With a water crisis looming in 2012, he was appointed to co-ordinate the first multi sector cross cutting National Drought Group, reporting directly to the Government,  and bringing together companies, regulators and government departments, representatives of agriculture and power groups and chaired by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman.

Trevor recalls: “In a worst-case scenario we were within 160 days of running out of water for some parts of London, with the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, 20 million people were on water restrictions and so were several thousand businesses for which water was critical.”

2012 drought triggered investment in research

Many parts of England had experienced the driest 18 months for more than 100 years and the crisis triggered the Research Councils’ £12m investment in the UK’s Drought & Water Scarcity Research Programme and several projects, now collectively known as About Drought.

He says: “About Drought is helping us to understand what the evidence is really saying so people like me can get behind the science. The events About Drought has held are the best I have seen at doing that.”

One of the most complex messages to translate from academia to policy and decision-makers is uncertainty. As a scientist by background, Trevor says: “Uncertainty is absolutely key, confidence in evidence data and About Drought’s better and more timely presentation of data is helping decision-makers to better manage uncertainty.

Trusted relationships for scientists and decision-makers

“The people making key decisions in a water crisis are generally not scientists and they may not always understand some of the subtleties behind academic report headlines. There are so many different layers in pure science, and decision-makers are always at risk of mis-representing some of the science.”

The solution is to build trusted, working relationships between policy-makers and the scientists behind the research, Trevor believes, involving more scientists in policy-making, working closely with universities and research organisations and maintaining that network beyond the life of the About Drought programme.

He explains: “Academics tend to operate in a semi-closed community but About Drought has brought policy-makers, scientists and academics together and that is becoming more and more important because the complexities and uncertainties in the science are fundamental to making the best policy decisions, especially with climate change playing an increasing role.”

Reliable data, meaningful and effective tools

The benefits of the relationships and community created by About Drought were felt in last summer’s dry spell. Trevor credits the MaRIUS project, in particular, with providing reliable data through meaningful and effective tools, such as the National Water Resources Model (WATHNET).

He says: “The models of drought we had were already starting to not perform as well as they used to because we are already seeing the subtle shifts that are taking place due to climate change, so we can’t rely on past data so much. But About Drought helped us and it was really good last summer to see key policy-makers and decision-makers thinking big and acting early.

“At least once a year we should bring this community we have formed together again – the policy-makers, the top scientists and academics – because that link needs to be rock solid.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Dr Chris Lambert, Supply Demand Senior Technical Advisor, Thames Water

Putting the needs of stakeholders at the heart of drought research

“Climate change is decreasing water availability and this research has definitely demonstrated how that can cause significant problems in water treatment works and has given us a better understanding of different types of water resource options.”

Dr Chris Lambert, Supply Demand Senior Technical Advisor, Thames Water

From the initial proposal for funding in 2014 to the final event on November 7, 2019, About Drought was driven by the needs of the organisations, communities and people who would be relying on the results of its research. Their practical requirements, regulatory restrictions, governance and operational methods have informed the structure, design and accessibility of the datasets and tools.

Even at the stage of drafting the funding proposal Thames Water was invited to review it by MaRIUS’ project leader Jim Hall, Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at Oxford University.

Matching the needs of water industry, NGOs and government

Chris Lambert, who is responsible for developing Thames Water’s Water Resource Management and Drought plans, joined the MaRIUS Stakeholder Advisory Group (SAG). The aim of drawing this expert group from industry, NGOs and government to steer the project, liaising with MaRIUS’ social and natural scientists, was to ensure its outputs, including the ‘impacts dashboard’, matched the needs of the group in an evolving policy context. This early access proved crucial to the benefits Thames Water has gained.

Chris says: “Being on the SAG as well as being involved in the parts of the project that were relevant to Thames Water, gave me wider visibility of the total work of the project. I had a much better understanding of how we could use some of the research in developing Thames Water’s water supply strategy.

“It led to us commissioning some tailored, specific work that gave us a better insight into the reliability of future water resource development and then we fed into our 2019 Water Resource Management Plan.”

Algae growth impact on reservoirs and abstraction

Of particular interest was the work on algae growth in rivers and ‘drought coincidence’. As a result, Thames Water commissioned its own more detailed research on how projected algae growth could impact on extracting water from reservoirs in conditions of water scarcity or drought, slowing its passage through the filtering system and therefore the speed at which public demand for water could be met.

Thames Water also commissioned the development of a bespoke application from MaRIUS’s water quality research data, focusing on the catchments of the Severn and Thames, and the added likely impact of climate change on water availability.

There are further potential impacts of the timing and positioning of water abstraction, i.e. from the bottom of the river catchment as opposed to higher up, including for the health of the Severn and Thames catchments. The results led to a change in plans for the management regime of Thames Water’s reservoirs.

Climate change is decreasing water availability

Chris says: “If you look into future likely scenarios, climate change is decreasing water availability and this research has definitely demonstrated how that can cause significant problems in water treatment works and has given us a better understanding of different types of water resource options.

“Part of my role is to engage with academic bodies to understand the latest thinking and communicate it internally to our senior executives and board members and to our external stakeholders as well. Another part is ensuring we have effective communication for public and community consultation on our Water Management Plans for the more practical aspects of day-to-day water supply. Through my involvement with MaRIUS and About Drought I have found the events – such as the one-day water suppliers’ feedback workshop in Oxford – very useful in giving me visibility of what has been done and in supporting me in getting internal funding.

“I have been able to follow-up with UK-based speakers who have always been very responsive and my colleagues have also found them very helpful.

“I do think that it would be worthwhile continuing bringing this community together, even if it is just once a year, to keep us up to speed. The work isn’t going to stop just because About Drought has stopped.

“It’s important to ensure the good work that has been done to date continues and doesn’t dry up just because the funding dries up.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Videos & podcasts

Hear what it was like to live through the 1976 drought from the people who were there, take in the dramatic experiences of firefighters battling wildfires in the UK and watch videos that break down the misconceptions about water shortage and drought in the UK, featuring people on the frontline of its impacts today.

Communications experts on the About Drought programme have produced a series of informative and evocative videos and podcasts which bring the research to life for all ages and audiences.

Podcasts & audio interviews reliving past droughts

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

Dr Rebecca Pearce has sourced a series of fascinating audio interviews with people who experienced the 1976 drought first-hand from a wide range of aspects – for instance, did you know that in 1976 firefighters tackled moorland blazes wearing plastic uniform over-trousers that were melting in the heat? These are available as podcasts and will also be published in written form.

These can be accessed via the Historic Drought Inventory which includes a large collection of corresponding news reports and drought records as well as the audio recordings. About Drought has presented the ‘Who’d Have Thought That…’ series on our own channel on the SoundCloud platform.

Rebecca says: “The experiences of droughts by people in the UK can vary considerably. From being barely noticed to being so severe they create long-lasting memories that can be recalled in an instant. This is because although water is essential for life and we’d all notice if we did not have a reasonable level of access to it for drinking, cooking, and hygiene, we are fortunate to have benefited from many years of progress in water engineering, which has resulted in our generally having security of supply.”

Myth-busting videos

A real challenge to communicating the urgent need to change our behaviour around water use – whether you are a water company, managing a waterway or creating policy – is the inbuilt misconception in the UK that it’s always wet and rainy, that drought is only an issue in other parts of the world.

About Drought series of Drought Myth Busting videos debunks popular misconceptions – such as ‘Droughts Only Happen In Summer’ and ‘Britain Is Wet: Droughts Don’t Happen Here’ – through interviews on location with people on the frontline of water shortages, such as father and daughter dairy farmers David and Fran Herdman as well as About Drought experts. These are available on the About Drought YouTube channel.

About Drought science news video documentaries

About Drought’s ‘audience first’ approach extended to an innovative ‘news documentary’ style of short films and podcasts, produced by national broadcast journalists to capture the interest of the general public as well as our stakeholders, particularly those tasked with drought communications.

We engaged news journalists to film on location and carry out interviews at our About Drought Showcase in March 2018 and the MaRIUS Workshop in 2017. We asked them to take the same approach as they would to a TV news assignment, picking out the angles they found most newsworthy and selecting their own interviewees and questions.

About Drought webinars

A rich resource of presentations from across MaRIUS events, featuring other elements of the About Drought research programme, are available to view on the MaRIUS YouTube channel.

Webinars covering the impact of drought on groundwater, water efficiency, historic hydrological droughts, drought forecasting, hydrological modelling of drought and low flows, a guide to outputs from the programme, community modelling, drought communications, water quality modelling in the River Trent, reconstructed flow data, and the hydrological status in the UK in August 2018, are available to view on YouTube. DRY’s research capturing communities’ own stories of water, shortages and drought, creating a story bank, developing a song from people’s experiences, storytelling for research and promoting water efficient behaviour also features in a series of videos published on YouTube.

Paul Crockett, Principal Officer, National Water Resources Planning Framework, Environment Agency

Informing the water industry & Environment Agency

“About Drought has informed the water industry, now we need some sort of mechanism to identify the most useful outputs from strategic to operational products. We must not let those fall through a crack now that About Drought has finished.”

Paul Crockett, Principal Officer, Environment Agency
River Teme fish rescue (© David Throup/Environment Agency)

“About Drought has helped generate a step change in thinking around what is possible and what can be done, and over the next 10 years or so we will be making better decisions, using better tools because of it,” says Paul Crockett who is leading the modelling work on the National Water Resources Planning Framework for the Environment Agency.

Yet Paul, who has worked closely with the MaRIUS project and About Drought (ENDOWS), believes there is still more to be done in encouraging the water industry to catch up with the latest outcomes of the programme’s data and tools.

Real-time decision-making support for the water industry

About Drought has supported the water industry in both strategic planning and real-time decision-making during a time when it has come under pressure to collaborate across water company boundaries on regional forward planning, as well as approaches to dealing with issues as they arise with a greater level of accountability.

MaRIUS and ENDOWS have held a series of workshop events specifically for the industry, working alongside key stakeholders to match its research to their needs.

With the National Water Resources Planning Framework driving water companies to work together to build resilience into water management with clear, joined-up direction from Government departments, agencies and water regulators, the industry is now more ready to be receptive, Paul feels.

He says: “There are a lot of great products from MaRIUS and About Drought but the water industry – the customer, if you like – is only just seeing the potential.”

Improving the industry’s understanding of statistics

Historic Droughts’ work in reconstructing reliable rainfall, river flow and groundwater data back to 1890, as well as providing standardised drought indices has been important in putting events into context, improving the industry’s understanding of statistics, the latest methodologies and stakeholder needs. There is still more to be done in migrating data from the academic models to those the water companies use.

The water resource model developed by MaRIUS is being adopted for use by Paul’s team, to help the National Water Resources Planning Framework assess the potential effects of different types of drought and climate change impacts at a national scale, and test management strategies.

Giving the water industry better knowledge and insights

Paul’s concern is that with the impacts of climate change starting to be felt on the reliability of water availability, it is the wrong time to bring About Drought to an end. He says: “It’s so important to have About Drought following on from the original research projects; it demonstrated what is possible, the better knowledge and insight we can get from the information that decisions will be based on in the future. The team really helped to educate the industry rather than just educating other academics.

“We need to look at the tools we can use to take it even further forward now that the industry is starting to buy into it more.

“About Drought has informed the water industry, now we need some sort of mechanism to identify the most useful outputs from strategic to operational products. We must not let those fall through a crack now that About Drought has finished.

“About Drought is to be applauded for what it has done but it needs more time and resources if it is to maximise the outcome for UK plc of all this research.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

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