Far reaching influence of MaRIUS research into water risks

By Dr Helen Gavin, Project Manager for MaRIUS

Research from the MaRIUS project is widely recognised as having transformed how water risks are managed by the Government, water suppliers and regulators.

MaRIUS (Managing the risks, impacts and uncertainties of droughts and water scarcity) developed the first national-scale water resource model for England and Wales, triggering a transition in government policy and industry practice. Between 2014 and 2020 MaRIUS research involved new theory, the creation of new datasets and models, validation and demonstration in case studies of how the risk of droughts can be assessed and better managed through system modelling and ‘outcomes-based’ approaches to decision making. To date, four major reports have drawn on its work: ‘Water UK Long Term Planning Framework (2016); the National Infrastructure Commission’s ‘Preparing for a drier future, England’s water infrastructure needs’ (2018); the Committee on Climate Change’s CCRA3 Water Availability study (2018-19) and the Environment Agency’s report ‘Meeting our Future Water Needs: A National Framework for Water Resources’ (2020).

Prof Jim Hall, Principal Investigator (PI) of MaRIUS and Professor of Climate and Environmental Risks at the University of Oxford, is a member of the Prime Minister’s Council of Science and Technology and an Expert Advisor to the National Infrastructure Commission. The project was based at the Environmental Change Institute in Oxford.

“Our research has caused a transition in government policy and industry practice for water resource management in England. It has shown how drought risks can be assessed and better managed through system modelling and ‘outcomes-based’ approaches to decision making.

“We have achieved a significant shift in thinking and practice by the regulators, through interaction over eight years with water companies, the Environment Agency, Ofwat, Defra and the National Infrastructure Commission.”

Professor Jim Hall, University of Oxford

The increasing frequency of droughts and water scarcity in our warming climate, combined with our growing population and increasing demands for supply present huge challenges for national and local government, water suppliers, energy, agriculture, infrastructure, industry and communities.

MaRIUS’s work has provided conceptual frameworks and methodologies that have enabled government and its agencies to address these challenges and has provided data, systems models and other evidence that are transforming policy and practice. The new water resource system simulation model integrates public water supplies with use of water in agriculture, power generation and other industries. It has been used to explore different future scenarios of drought and assess the frequency, duration and severity of water shortages now and in the future. Tools have been developed to explore trade-offs between different aspects of risk and the cost of alternative management plans.

Key to the take-up of MaRIUS’s research was a series of well-managed and effective workshops where potential users sat down with the leading researchers to explore datasets, models and tools in development, sharing their real-world decision-making and communications processes.

“We are continuing to work very closely with the Environment Agency and Ofwat, at their request. We are undertaking joint resilience assessments and exploring the impacts on water resources. We continue to train Environment Agency staff on our model and will transfer this tool to them as they wish to use it to fulfil their regulatory responsibilities.”

Professor Jim Hall, University of Oxford

Groundwater management during droughts and future prospects

A new publication has been released today which explores how our essential groundwater resources are managed during droughts, and against a backdrop of environmental change, what future priorities should be.

The work reports the outputs from a meeting over 50 hydrogeologists from water companies, regulators, consultancies and academia that was held by About Drought in July 2019 in Birmingham. The aim of the meeting was to consider current groundwater drought management practices and identity research needs.

Four key themes are discussed throughout the paper:

  • Joined up definitions of drought
  • Enhanced monitoring
  • Improved modelling of groundwater during droughts
  • Better information sharing

“Managing groundwater supplies subject to drought: perspectives on current status and future priorities from England (UK)” has been published in Hydrogeology Journal and is available to all now.

Putting real-time data into the hands of water managers

A year on from the launch of the UK Water Resources Portal, it is being used as a valuable and reliable real-time water monitoring tool by environmental and water managers.

The web-based system tracks the latest hydrological situation across England, Wales and Scotland, allowing users to explore up-to-date data including rainfall, river flows, soil moisture and groundwater levels.

It makes use of very recently published real-time river flow data from the Environment Agency (EA) and puts it in the context of longer term water availability, using data from the National River Flow Archive based at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), including knowledge about drought indicators that have been developed through the About Drought programme.

It includes standardised indicators for rainfall (Standardised Precipitation Index), river flows (Standardised Streamflow Index) and groundwater (Standardised Groundwater Index), but allows users to switch to actual values, which can make them easier to understand. Indices can be compared between locations with very different rainfall and between times of year or be calculated over different time frames, depending on the user’s requirements.

Matt Fry, Environmental Informatics Manager at the (UKCEH), manages the data workstream of the About Drought knowledge exchange project. His focus has been on co-designing the tools to put the research programme’s data into the hands of users in an accessible and meaningful way. He says:

You do not need technical skills to use the UK Water Resources Portal. Anyone with an interest in current water resources or drought conditions can use it – from policymakers to members of the public, businesses to farmers and regulators to consultants. It really helps to raise awareness of the status of river flows and rainfall, particularly during drought episodes, and we believe it is an excellent communications tool for all sorts of end users and decision makers

Jamie Hannaford, Principal Investigator of About Drought and Principal Hydrologist at UKCEH, adds:

“The UK Water Resources Portal is a big advance in real-time data availability.”

The UK Water Resources Portal is just one of the many user-friendly data products from About Drought.

Explore the data platforms here.

Read more in the online About Drought Handbook.

Historic Droughts: Using the past to inform the future

Lucy Barker (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) presents on a number of cutting edge aspects of drought science.

Climate change projections indicate that extreme events will increase in their frequency and severity in the future.  An improved understanding of the drought events of the past can inform current and future management. In this talk, Lucy demonstrates how reconstructed river flows have enabled consistent, national scale characterisation of historic hydrological droughts and how access to current and historic data can support ongoing drought monitoring activities.

The work originates from a number of projects including Historic Droughts and the About Drought programme and you can view the talk below.

This talk is part of the British Hydrological Society webinar series, “Future Hydrology in a Changing Environment”. You can view past webinars on their YouTube channel.

Experts from About Drought discuss the past few months remarkable weather

Experts from the About Drought project have given updates on the recent changeable weather we’ve been seeing in the UK and further afield.

The team at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) released a blog post which focused on the hydrological transformation following the wettest February on record, which soon turned into one of the driest springs on record. Low soil moisture and river flows at the end of May have resulted in impacts on agriculture and the environment, and heightened concerns over water resources over the longer term.

“There is now an increasing risk of reduced crop yields and potential water use restrictions.”

Katie Muchan, Hydrologist at UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Find out more by visiting the UKCEH blog post which also highlights the UK Water Resources Portal, one of the outputs from About Drought.

Adding to the debate, Professor Len Shaffrey at the University of Reading contributed to a blog post exploring the reasons as to why we are seeing such changeable weather.

The article explores whether the persistent high-pressure “blocking” weather systems which bring clear, dry conditions for many days or weeks, are becoming more frequent. These systems are particularly synonymous with heatwaves and drought in summer and bitterly cold conditions in winter.

Len explains that changes in the Arctic, “might influence the frequency of blocking events”:

“The theories suggest that as the Arctic warms, changes in the strength and position of the northern hemisphere jet stream will allow blocking events to become more frequent.” 

Professor Len Shaffrey, professor of climate science at University of Reading

Find out more by visiting the Carbon Brief blog post.

Interested in the UK water resources situation?

Following the wettest February on record earlier this year, last month is set to be declared the driest May in England for 124 years with some water regions warning of potential drought conditions.

The UK Water Resources Portal allows anyone with an interest in current water resources or drought conditions to explore the data both nationally and locally. The portal makes use of very recently published river flow data from the Environment Agency and rainfall data from the Met Office to show the situation across the UK. Alongside historical data and standardised indices, the Portal allows users to put the current situation into a historical context.

Check out the UK Water Resources Portal

For help using the Portal we have created a YouTube User Guide

The UK Water Resources Portal is one of the outputs from About Drought project. More information and further outputs can be found in the About Drought Handbook.

TRANS.MISSION II – UK

Hay Festival and the UK Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) joined forces for Trans.MISSION II, a new global project pairing leading environmental researchers with award-winning storytellers to communicate cutting-edge science to new audiences. The UK strand saw British writer and journalist Patrice Lawrence paired with scientists Dr Sarah Ayling, Professor Lindsey McEwen from the DRY project. Using the project’s work as inspiration, Patrice and the team have created a piece of creative writing to highlight the issues around UK droughts and water scarcity.

Patrice Lawrence is a British writer and journalist, who has published fiction both for adults and children. Her writing has won awards including the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Children and The Bookseller YA Book Prize. 

The work was launched at Hay Festival Online festival on the 25 May 2020. The story, by Patrice Lawrence, is set in the not too distant future when London is running low on water…

More information about the Hay Festival and the Trans.Mission II project.

Book bringing drought research to children wins national award – DRY: Diary of a Water Superhero

A drought storybook for children has won a national award for its beautifully illustrated message about water scarcity in the UK.

In announcing the Geographical Association Publishers’ Silver Award for ‘DRY: Diary of a Water Superhero’ on Thursday, April 16th (2020), judges said ‘… this fantastic picture book found the perfect balance as a powerful personal story line, supported by excellent art work, delivering a range of interesting geographical facts’.

The book, written as a young girl’s diary, has been published by the Drought Risk & You (DRY) Project, which is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). The story runs over the course of a year and tells how an ordinary schoolgirl in the UK transforms into a water superhero when a dry summer and winter with little rainfall lead to drought. Seeing life through ‘water goggles’, the girl shares her new-found love of water with her school and community, as the drought progresses.

The story and accompanying teacher notes were created by Prof Lindsey McEwen, who heads the DRY project and is Professor of Environmental Management and Director of the Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience at the University of the West of England Bristol (UWE); Dr Verity Jones, Senior Lecturer in Education at UWE; Sarah Whitehouse, Senior Lecturer in Education & Humanities at UWE and Dr Sara Williams, an environmental psychologist and researcher. The illustrations by artist Luci Gorell Barnes play a key role in projecting the relevance of the story and the science behind it.

The award was judged on the book’s impact, originality, quality and usability.

DRY: the diary of a water hero won the Silver Geographical Association Publishers’ Award

Prof McEwen said: “Our authoring team are extremely pleased to gain this external recognition for excellence. Our book aims to make new research accessible to, and engaging for, young children. The development of the book and teachers’ notes represents a new successful creative collaboration between University of the West of England Bristol’s Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience and its Primary Education specialists, working together with socially-engaged artist Luci Gorell Barnes.”

The DRY Project is part of About Drought, the UK’s Drought & Water Scarcity Research Programme, funded by NERC as part of UK Research Innovation (UKRI). Three themes of the research are explored in the book: classifying different types of UK droughts and their impacts; interrogating common misconceptions surrounding UK drought; and exploring what actions citizens might take to prepare for drought and how children can be agents for change in rethinking water behaviours.

The full Silver Award citation reads: “The judges thought that this fantastic picture book found the perfect balance as a powerful personal story line, supported by excellent artwork, delivering a range of interesting geographical facts. This results in a book that will engage and empower a KS2 audience studying water or wider environmental issues. The accompanying teacher’s guide is filled with challenging and thought-provoking activities that include developing the concepts of ‘water footprints’ and ‘UK droughts’. They are well designed to deepen pupils’ thinking and facilitate questioning, discussion and debate. The message that we can all be champions of change is a key one and will inspire children to take action.”

DRY: Diary of a Water Superhero is available to read online in English and Welsh

Teacher’s notes are also available https://dryutility.info/learning/ 

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 www.AboutDrought.info

Follow Patrice Lawrence on Twitter @LawrencePatrice

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.