Top author turns research into a story for Hay Festival

An award-winning author specialising in teen fiction is writing a story based on About Drought and Drought Risk & You (DRY) research for the world-famous Hay Festival.

Patrice Lawrence, whose novel Orangeboy won the Bookseller Young Adult Prize and the Waterstones Prize for Older Children’s Fiction, has been partnered with About Drought through Trans.MISSIONII, a joint initiative by UKRI NERC and Hay Festival.

About Drought and DRY have already won plaudits for their innovative approach to research, data gathering and communications through storytelling, song, animations, video, cartoons and an educational book for primary school children. Patrice has been meeting with our researchers to plan a creative piece of writing aimed at starting conversations about drought with teenagers and young adults. It will be showcased at this year’s Hay Festival held in Hay-on-Wye, Wales, from May 21-31.

Gripping storytelling for young adults

Renowned for gripping, contemporary writing, often set in black working-class communities, that connects with traditionally hard to reach young adult audiences, Patrice is finding it both stimulating and challenging to work with About Drought.

We met in the bustling Wellcome Collection café in London, swelled by shoppers and commuters sheltering from a late afternoon downpour and next to the Wellcome gift shop’s eclectic display of furry toy microbes, ‘earwax’ fudge and science-themed board games to talk about Patrice’s progress so far.

She immediately ‘confessed’: “I have no scientific background and I haven’t written about science before, so I have no idea why Hay chose me but part of the joy for me in writing is the sheer nosiness!

“I have met with Prof Lindsey McEwen, Dr Sarah Ayling and Dr Jill Thompson from the DRY project to talk through the messages from About Drought’s research and I’m now entwining them into a piece of creative writing.

Realistic look at what 2050 life will be like

“Scientists think differently from authors, I’m picking up little details and I am trying to work out how much creative licence I can have. I want to create characters that reflect the types of science in About Drought and I have been thinking ahead to 2050 – what will be different in the lives of those readers, surprising things that might have become precious and valuable – like water? Will the buildings they live, learn and work in be designed differently to cope with drought? Will we be eating different things? I want to weave those everyday differences into a very realistic portrayal of what life will be like and how we will be using water.”

Although the starting point to this story is very different for Patrice, the process is familiar. Her fiction for teens and young adults is careful not to talk down to readers and is not shy of tackling relevant issues such as crime, racism, housing and ‘lovely’ young characters who nevertheless do bad things, including knife crime.  Patrice is committed to working in schools, encouraging and inspiring young people from all backgrounds to read fiction and to write their own, regardless of their skills in spelling and grammar. While most of her books are set in London where Patrice now lives, she grew up in Sussex in an Italian-Trinidadian family.

With many books for children of all ages and adults to her credit, not to mention awards, Patrice has a successful formula for approaching each project. The approach for About Drought’s Trans.MISSIONII story is no different. She explains: “I always start with characters, I need to know who I am writing about, what the beginning situation is and the end. Then I play with the middle.

“I am writing it as a monologue, a first-person short story set in 2050 and narrated by a teenage character. I would love a young person to read it at the Hay Festival.  Young people’s voices are great. I spend a lot of time on buses, listening to young people chat to each other to capture their voices.

“What motivates me is engaging with teenagers and I do lots of work in schools with marginalised teens. They are not a ‘hard to reach’ audience, it is more that they are not reached in the right way.”

Trans.MISSIONII offers new platform

Patrice’s story will be performed / read at the Hay Festival which will also feature two other research project and artist collaborations – one from Colombia and the other from Peru. All three are aimed at communicating cutting edge science to new audiences through new methods. A video version will also be available.

Andy Fryers, Sustainability Director of Hay Festival, introduced Patrice to About Drought. He said: “We are delighted with this collaboration between the award-winning author Patrice Lawrence and the About Drought research project. Wherever we are in the world, Hay Festival is a home for storytellers, a space for writers and readers to come together and explore the biggest challenges of our time. Trans.MISSIONII offers a new platform for collaboration between storytellers from two different worlds: artists and scientists. We hope that by building this shared space for engagement at the cutting edge of environmental research with NERC, we can find new ways to imagine a better future together.”

Read more about the research, watch videos and listen to podcasts at

Follow Patrice Lawrence on Twitter @LawrencePatrice

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Early warning forecasts – a real success story!

“Since September 2018 we have been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios … it is a real success story.”

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Hydrologist, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

A key need addressed by About Drought has been improved access to early warning information, especially for hydrological forecasting. 

Since 2013 a Hydrological Outlook had been provided by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH)the Met Office and BGS, producing a static document that gives a 1-page summary for the UK as a whole, followed by regional and national information. But that did not allow users to access a forecast for the particular river in the UK that they were interested in. 

Under About Drought that has become possible. Our project IMPETUS aimed to improve drought forecasting for decision-makers, building on information gathered at a host of stakeholder workshops to establish current practices and their needs across water supply, health, power, agriculture, navigation and recreation. 

New insight into likely river flows 3 months ahead

It developed a new methodology of forecasting and the follow-on project ENDOWS gave researchers the opportunity to develop IMPETUS’ methods. Now an insight into hydrological conditions over the coming three months, with likely trajectories for flows in 300 rivers around the UK and groundwater levels is available.

Jamie Hannaford, ENDOWS’ Principal Investigator and Principal Hydrologist at UKCEH, says: “The science was done in IMPETUS. We tested the methods, validating them to see how reliable and accurate they are around the country and at different times of the year. 

“Then in ENDOWS we opened up the forecasts and operationalised that system to the extent that these hydrological forecasts are now available in the first few days of every month. 

Since the summer of 2018 we have worked with a very wide range of stakeholders, providing them with forecasts for the river catchments that are relevant and ensuring that they meet user needs. In last summer’s drought conditions when many stakeholders needed reliable information about what would happen next, they have told us that these forecasts were very useful.”

Bespoke forecasts for EA and Yorkshire Water

The forecasts have been provided to a wide range of users, including water companies, the Environment Agency (EA)Natural Resources Wales, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the National Farmers’ Union, energy industry and the Canal & River Trust

Jamie adds: “Since September 2018 we have also been providing bespoke hydrological forecasts for the Environment Agency’s area teams based on their reasonable worst-case scenarios and stress test scenarios. They have been used internally and for National Drought Group briefings – it is a real success story.

“In the dry spell of Summer 2018 we started providing hydrological outlooks to Yorkshire Water who wanted to specifically look at the likelihood of reaching certain flow thresholds for their internal management, and we came up with a bespoke outlook for them. 

“These are just two examples that illustrate the benefit of having the extra ENDOWS knowledge exchange and synthesis funding for the programme. It has enabled the excellent science from IMPETUS to fulfil its potential, it gave researchers the time to hear directly from stakeholders how it could be used, to refine our outputs to make them user-friendly, for example through data visualisation. 

“We listened and as a result they were able to use them to access better information in a live situation in the 2018 drought. Users said they were pleased to see that this project produced such useful information, and that there is a pathway for this science to be continued after ENDOWS, through the Hydrological Outlook.”

Published October 2019

Neil Edwards, Environment & Chemistry Technical Support, RWE Generation UK

Informing the power sector

“There is much to be done and having access to the existing About Drought materials can only better inform the deliberations.”

Neil Edwards, Environment & Chemistry Technical Support, RWE Generation UK

Neil Edwards has represented RWE Generation UK in stakeholder discussions with MaRIUS and DRY, as well as attending conferences and workshops. He believes those connections have enabled About Drought’s outputs to be of greater benefit to the power sector, including building better resilience of services that rely on water-dependent infrastructure. 

He says: “The next few years could be important in how the UK positions itself to deliver resilience of services – such as public water supply, power and food – in a period in which we are going to be economically and institutionally challenged. There is much to be done and having access to the existing About Drought materials can only better inform the deliberations. 

New contacts improved understanding

“I’ve developed useful contacts through networking at the major events and workshops with practitioners that I didn’t have before. The networking and events together, gave me opportunities to contribute to improving the wider understanding of the interaction between power plants and the aquatic environment, which is sometimes not well-represented in academic literature. 

Boost for power sector

“I believe this to be of value to RWE and to the wider power sector. It led to some power sector-focused work being done within the research programme, which has given power sector players a better information base to think through some aspects of water quality in drought and hence, contribute to developing better understanding of resilience issues. 

“I also hope that the forecasting initiative with CEH will lead to improved river flow and seasonal weather forecasting information for relevant power sector locations, which will aid better risk management of commercial positions in low flow events; though this has not advanced as fast as I would have liked.”  

Neil has also been able to draw on access to communications resources. He says: “I have used the softer communications / story telling materials to get an understanding of wider social considerations surrounding major drought events as background in participation in freshwater-related stakeholder activity, such as interaction with DEFRA/EA on water resource management and regional water planning.”

Risk and scenario building

Collaboration with MaRIUS supported RWE’s work on risk to power generation and scenario building. Neil says: “We have used the tailored water quality modelling work to better understand potential risk – this is now factored into our thinking and into our interaction with DEFRA/EA on aspects of resilience. We are aware of the grid-to-grid river flow work and climate change-related work, and we would access it if we felt the need.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Kate Carver, Great Fen Project Manager, Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire

Unblinkered approach to managing water resources

“Being involved with DRY has been experience- and mind-expanding! It introduced us to a whole new group of people who had different ideas and ways of doing things and we learned a lot.”

Kate Carver, Great Fen Project Manager, Wildlife Trust for Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire & Northamptonshire

From science to songs and a ‘mock trial’ of water use evidence – no-one could accuse About Drought’s research of being blinkered! 

Kate Carver, who was invited by the DRY project to contribute to the Bevills Leam Local Action Group (LAG) in rural Cambridgeshire, found herself acting as a ‘witness’ in a traditional Sardinian-style trial of evidence performed in Ramsay Rural Museum that enabled the community to expose and address the conflicting perspectives, interests and priorities around drought and water scarcity.On another occasion Kate was invited to feature in ‘Utopia’, a festival/exhibition at Somerset House, London, marking the 500th anniversary of Thomas More’s book ‘Utopia’, bringing together people from around the UK. Several members of the Bevills Leam DRY LAG attended including Kate. They had an exhibition stand about the Bevills Leam LAG and the DRY project and engaged with those attending the event.

Shared stories woven into song

DRY’s many creative community events elicited stories that were woven into a community song written by folk singer, musician and songwriter Sharron Kraus ‘A River is a Snake’ which you can hear on DRY’s website

It opened up a new world of social science engagement which enabled Kate to meet people and interests from a broad variety of sectors and affiliations, and this fed into the Great Fen’s  new Water Works project, funded by the People’s Postcode Lottery Dream Fund, to promote sustainability. 

Kate says: “Being involved with DRY has been experience- and mind-expanding! We at Great Fen had not worked with social scientists before so that was quite an innovation for us. It introduced us to a whole new group of people who had different ideas and ways of doing things and we learned a lot.

The benefits of bringing groups together

“The methodology was interesting and useful. We learned to not be afraid of new methods, not have preconceived ideas about different groups of people and different sectors. It was a freer way of working but still with academic rigour. 

“The DRY project was a societal indicator that showed the benefits of bringing different groups together to work for sustainability, it pointed the way. 

“In nature conservancy we spend a lot of time working on technical aspects and it is easy to get blinkered by that so it was good to meet farmers from neighbouring areas, not just those on our ‘patch’, and really useful to hear their perspective on when they need water and what for – I was able to understand the day-to-day practicalities. 

Pressure on land for agriculture and housing

“The area I cover is the driest part of the UK and one of the most productive agricultural areas. There is great pressure on the land for housing development but also great pressure on nature. “Availability and use of water is a constant preoccupation in this part of the world and has been for centuries. Water has been being drained away since the 17th Century, the whole agricultural system is predicated on drainage, on pumping water away. But when peat dries out it emits carbon dioxide, if we re-wet the area it can mitigate carbon loss so in terms of climate change these natural systems will be critical in helping this country to adhere to its emission goals.”

Bring flood and drought research together

Kate is not the only stakeholder involved in About Drought’s projects to suggest that the next step should be viewing water management as one issue, bringing drought and flood research together. 

She says: “I believe the remit should now be expanded into an integrated approach to water management, bringing in other elements as well – pollination, carbon sequestration, biodiversity … all the eco system services that the landscape provides could benefit from the DRY LAG approach.”

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

Narrowboats on canal in Hungerford, Berkshire
Narrowboats on canal in Hungerford, Berkshire

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

Tracey Dunford, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Lead Specialist Planner Water Resources

Drought in Wales

‘About Drought’s workshop in Cardiff helped to really engage the interest of my peers and colleagues who deal with drought in Wales’

Tracey Dunford, Natural Resources Wales (NRW), Lead Specialist Planner Water Resources
Low water level in a South Wales reservoir
Pontsticill Reservoir in South Wales. CREDIT: Karl McCarthy

About Drought has given people creating water policies and strategies, face-to-face access to scientists at the forefront of drought research through a series of workshops held around the UK. Tracey Dunford, who has worked in water resources for Wales for 20 years, attended a wide range of workshops organised by MaRIUS and DRY, returning to Cardiff to share information about the programme’s latest datasets and communications research with her colleagues

Targeted workshop for Welsh audience

She says: “All the Drought and Water Scarcity and ENDOWS events I went to were extremely useful. I have been feeding back to my colleagues on the various outputs and they have been considering how to incorporate them into their decision making. The workshop About Drought held for NRW and the Welsh Government in Cardiff was especially useful as it was targeted to the Welsh audience. 

 “All our drought leads in NRW across Wales attended, including colleagues from biodiversity, fisheries, water resources, water quality, forestry and policy. It helped to engage people’s interest across our whole organisation and keep us all up-to-date with the current science.” 

The Natural Resources Wales/Welsh Government Workshop was held in December 2018, with delegates hearing directly about the research and outputs from About Drought and inviting them to help shape the final phase of activity. Initially the delegates heard from NRW who introduced the areas of their organisation that are most likely to be engaged with About Drought, which then gave way to introductions from the About Drought team. 

ENDWS Principal Investigator, Jamie Hannaford from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) introduced the programme. The agenda covered Water Supply with Dr Helen Gavin from the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University, Environment with Dr Nevil Quinn (University of the West of England) and Dr Francois Edwards (CEH), and Agriculture with Prof Ian Holman (Cranfield University). Following these introductions, the floor was opened for discussions and Q&A, to further discuss next steps for NRW’s and the Welsh Government’s involvement.

Engaging with experts in Wales

A separate meeting was held with NRW community colleagues in early 2019 with Prof Lindsey McEwen, Ruth Larbey and Emma Weitkamp of the DRY (Drought Risk & You) Project, working with communities and business. 

“These two helped to really engage the interest of my peers and colleagues who deal with drought in Wales, for instance our Hydrology and Agriculture Leads are now in direct contact with CEH and Cranfield University, providing their feedback on, for example, the UK Drought Portal, and with UWE to provide feedback on the environmental drought report cards,” says Tracey. 

“Our next stage is to consider all the data and outputs that have come out of About Drought and take stock of how we can use it. We need to put it into the context of Wales – for example, what are the drought impacts in Wales and the sectors most at risk? What does it mean for our natural resources including land, water and forestry? It can be easy to get overwhelmed by all the evidence. 

“During 2018’s prolonged hot dry weather we found the UK Drought Portal and the monthly Hydrological Outlooks useful, for example, for collating the Standard Precipitation Index triggers.” Being able to sit in a series of workshops around the same table as About Drought’s leading experts behind the data sets, has been invaluable for Tracey and for the programme team as well.

Two-way knowledge exchange

Tracey says: “It’s been beneficial both ways, not only did I get to know about so many things – including the drought communications work – but I was able to explain to the researchers that what works for England isn’t always necessarily right for Wales. Drought planning isn’t always the same, some of the policy and governances are quite different.

“I am concerned about losing contact with everyone now the programme has ended. Will I have ability to still contact people if we don’t understand something or we want a bit more background? 

“The briefing papers and one-pagers on topics have been very useful but I need to think ‘How is that useful for Wales? What are the most likely drought impacts? Where will they be? What are the short, medium or long-term impacts?’ As an organisation we in NRW need to take that forward. 

“It would be good to have it packaged up for Welsh policy, a synopsis of how drought affects Wales rather than topic by topic. In terms of decision-making we are re-visiting how we ‘do’ drought in Wales and we are going to find the About Drought datasets useful now that we are evolving our drought policy.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Steve McGuire, Senior Scientist in Water Resources, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

Drought in Scotland

“It’s a common perception that drought doesn’t have an impact in Scotland, you see much a worse impact in other parts of the world, but it is all relative. In fact, drought is an issue for us with a widespread and big impact. That is something we had already been trying to communicate and summer 2018 helped to get the message home.”

Steve McGuire, Senior Scientist in Water Resources, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA)

From improved communications to more accurate monitoring, in 2018 the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) went into North East Scotland’s most prolonged period of water scarcity in decades better equipped, thanks to About Drought. 

New contacts also mean that SEPA’s Water Scarcity Team are able to build more Scotland-specific data and research into their new strategies. 

Two consecutive dry winters, low summer rainfall, higher than average temperatures and a period of soil moisture deficit that stretched a month longer than in 1976, caused impacts across the region in summer 2018. Steve McGuire had already been involved with the research programme representing SEPA, a key stakeholder, for several years and presented at About Drought’s Drought & Water Scarcity Conference in Oxford in March 2019 about how Scotland’s National Water Scarcity Plan was implemented in summer 2018 – its first major test.

Drought is an issue in Scotland – whisky production stopped

He says: “It’s a common perception that drought doesn’t have an impact in Scotland, you see much worse impact in other parts of the world, but it is all relative. In fact, drought is an issue for us with a widespread and big impact. That is something we had already been trying to communicate and summer 2018 helped to get the message home.” 

That impact affected fish stocks and crops and included halting whisky production, and with a relatively high proportion of private water supplies in some regions, these crucial issues led to the Scottish Government bolstering supplies with water in tankers in some areas. Steve says: “Many of the private water supplies are not robust enough to deal with an extreme event – they are often from shallow groundwater or springs – we are working together with the Scottish Government and Scotland’s Centre of Expertise for Waters to look at improving the existing private supplies.” 

Impact of water scarcity on timber industry

The Oxford conference, attended by 150 water experts, stakeholders, regulators and researchers, was a valuable opportunity for Steve and a small group of Water Scarcity Team colleagues to extend their contacts around the UK as well as internationally, and find out how water resources are managed in other countries. Those included a key connection with Forestry Commission research presented by Susan Davies of the University of Edinburgh, discussing drought-resilient tree species. 

Steve says: “It was the first time we had heard that anyone was looking at that for the Scottish Timber Industry, at the same time we had also started to look at water resources, policy and ecology plans for the different sectors in Scotland and we have been able to feed Susan’s research into those plans.” 

Steve had also joined one of DRY’s very popular regional community workshops, held in the Eden Catchment in Fife. 

“It definitely shaped how we produce our reports and ways to get the right message across, making people aware that water scarcity is an issue in Scotland, which helped us in the summer of 2018. It brought different people around the same table – Scottish Water, government, local farmers … groups like that were really good for getting other people’s points of view that we may not always see.”

About Drought’s Edinburgh workshop

Then in May 2019 About Drought held a workshop for SEPA and Scottish Water in Edinburgh which enabled a wider audience to discuss the programme’s outputs first-hand. Steve explains: “That was great because it meant we could get more people from SEPA to come along and the focus was on Scottish issues – it is useful to make use of experiences elsewhere and ensure we are following consistent approaches with other agencies, but there are also cases where a Scotland-specific approach is required.” 

As a result of that meeting, SEPA identified where it can feed improved data from its monitoring network into the UK Drought Portal and, in turn, draw from it near real-time data to better monitor and communicate situational updates. In the future it is leading to a collaboration, developing a forecast system providing advanced, accurate warnings of when water scarcity is developing.

Combining resources, data and effort

“We are speaking to CEH about combining our resources, data and effort to feed our live data into the Drought Portal and we envisage being able to use the tool with our own reporting which would be a significant step forward,” says Steve.

SEPA are using About Drought’s communications research to inform future messaging for different audiences, like pre-warning private supply holders of potential impacts of water scarcity and the need to protect the environment. 

Inspired by innovative communications project

SEPA were inspired by the innovative work by students from Falmouth University’s School of Communication Design on how to get water-saving messages across to hard-to-reach Millennials by About Drought’s social science co-ordinator, Dr Rebecca Pearce. 

With humorous video clips, posters and social media posts the students devised effective peer-to-peer campaigns. Steve explains: “It was really interesting to see their ideas, it’s a relatively new area to us. We really liked the ideas they had. 

“This wider and better understanding that we have from About Drought means we can develop ways to get our information out there and, importantly, to get a general understanding that water scarcity is becoming more of an issue in the future due to climate change. “It is something everyone needs to think about and everyone can have an impact.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Nicola Dunn, Resource Management Scientist, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)

Working with farmers and growers

“There is so much to gain from discussions with other stakeholders, so much to learn from each other, that’s a big positive for the AHDB.”

Nicola Dunn, Resource Management Scientist, Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB)

Farmers felt the benefit of AHDB’s involvement in the About Drought research programme, receiving up-to-date accurate and relevant information during the summer of 2018 from AHDB, thanks in part to the relationships formed with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) and Cranfield University

“We were able to pull information together for farmers; explaining the current situation, where they could get help and actions to take when facing water shortages, stressed crops and stressed livestock,” says AHDB’s water expert Nicola Dunn, who previously worked for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU). 

Putting data into farmer-friendly language

“We were really able to focus on the information that would make a difference. 

“I had already made links with Cranfield, who were doing a lot of work on the agricultural side of the drought and water scarcity research programme, so knowing what they had already published, I was able to use it to help our audiences – the information was already there for us and I knew where to find it. 

“We put this work into farmer-friendly language, covering what could be done to save water, reduce irrigation programmes and contextualise some of the decisions farmers were making, and suggest modifications they could make right there and then.” Nicola attended the About Drought Showcase in March 2018, as well as workshops around drought communications, monitoring and the UK Drought Portal. She says: “There is so much to gain from discussions with other stakeholders, so much to learn from each other, that’s a big positive for the AHDB.”

Impact on health and welfare of livestock

The crop and livestock sectors felt very different impacts during and after the summer 2018 drought. Crop growers are more used to managing reduced and restricted water availability but cattle farmers, especially in the North West of England, were facing not just water shortages, but also problems caused by the heat wave on the health and welfare of their livestock, poor grass growth and the knock-on impact on winter feed silage, already impacted by February’s so-called ‘Beast from the East’ blast of freezing weather. For them, the drought had a much longer impact and morphed into a feed supply issue, which was a serious concern.

Advances in drought forecasting

The monthly Hydrological Outlooks from CEH have been particularly useful for the AHDB. Nicola explains: “The drought forecasting and advances in how Standard Precipitation Index information has been used, was useful for explaining current situations, helping our audiences to understand it visually and combining it with work the Environment Agency was producing. We are now developing communications based on the outlooks, and the maps are a really good tool for engaging with farmers as well as colleagues; it really helps everyone to understand the situation. 

“Following last summer, we need to do a lot of scenario planning for different outcomes, for example if we had had another dry winter, what would happen next summer? 

“The main things About Drought have given us are great links with Cranfield, CEH and the University of the West of England. The AHDB couldn’t afford to fund such a large research programme so we certainly support this type of work. 

“If we can develop forecasting abilities even further into something farmers can understand and use themselves in their planning that would be the gold standard outcome for us. I hope that we will continue working together, building on what the agricultural sector needs and supporting future research.” 

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019

Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water

UK Drought Portal put to the test in 2018 drought

“Some of this data is quite technical, having it visualised so clearly is very useful because it is so easy to share.”

Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water
Miranda Foster
Miranda Foster, Senior Hydrologist, Yorkshire Water

Miranda Foster, a hydrologist with Yorkshire Water for 18 years, was just one of the programme’s water supply stakeholders who was able to use the UK Drought Portal to provide current, reliable and easy-to-access data in the prolonged dry spell in 2018. 

The UK Drought Portal is a near real-time tool allowing users to explore up-to-date data and monitor current regional dry weather status across the UK. The tool shows the relative magnitude of drought events within river basins and individual catchments, based on rainfall deficits over durations ranging from 1 to 24 months. 

It has been developed by the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) as part of the About Drought research programme, using drought indicator datasets developed by the Historic Droughts project and DrIVER, which was also NERC-funded. Miranda says: “The Drought Portal gives us a spatial as well as a temporal picture and it confirms our data in a very quick and easy way. We have our own drought severity calculations for single sites but to have it shown for catchments is very useful. The visuals are easy to convey to others in Yorkshire Water and we used some of it to support our drought permit applications to look at the severity and extent of how conditions developed over time.” 

Providing early warning signs of drought

The Drought Portal is interactive and has been designed to support monitoring of water supply conditions and provide early warning signs of drought, exploring past drought characteristics in specific areas of interest as well as time frames, based on rainfall. Users can view Standard Precipitation Indexes (SPI), an indicator of drought that is widely used internationally for drought monitoring, by geographical area, including by postcode, and by time frame, going back to 1961. 

“Some of this data is quite technical,” says Miranda. “Having it visualised so clearly is very useful because it is so easy to share.”

The Drought Portal also contributes to CEH’s monthly Hydrological Outlooks and to the National River Flow Archive, with Yorkshire Water able to commission bespoke outputs. Miranda adds: “The bespoke river flow forecasts presenting data with a red, amber and green alert format as opposed to just tables and percentages has been very good and I have been able to feed that information to those who need it. 

Providing clear evidence to support drought permits

“For instance, last summer [2018] was the first time I have been involved in applying for drought permits. For quite a few years the focus had been on flooding because droughts were relatively unusual but as shown in 2017-18 they are still very much an issue and with climate change they are likely to be more frequent.” 

Yorkshire Water successfully applied for two drought permits to increase annual river abstraction limits in preparation for another dry winter and in anticipation of high winter demands in 2018-19, using evidence from the Drought Portal and many other analyses. These permits were granted but were not implemented as winter demands were not high and there was some recovery in reservoir stocks. 

Miranda says: “It has been very interesting to work with About Drought. We have used maps from the Drought Portal and our local Environment Agency colleagues have said they found these a useful clear depiction of the severity and extent of drought.”

Interview by Sally Stevens

Posted October 2019