Droughts during 2018/2019 in the UK

A new paper on the 2018/2019 drought in the United Kingdom has been published in the Royal Meteorological Society’s journal Weather

The hot summer of 2018 may be memorable for many and, as well as this period, the paper highlights the perhaps less widespread recognition of a longer period of dry conditions leading up to this heatwave, and a similarly protracted dry spell extending into late 2019 in some parts of the United Kingdom.

Read the open access paper

The paper documents the events in terms of their meteorological and hydrological nature, and assesses the varied impacts droughts had across the UK and touches on how the droughts in 2018/2019 compare with previous episodes.

Figure from the paper showing (a) Standardised Precipitation Index (SPI-1) for June 2018. Black areas indicate SPI less than -4.0. (b) Mean river flows June–July 2018.

The paper was supported by the National Hydrological Monitoring Programme which is operated jointly by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology and the British Geological Survey and the UKRI Drought and Water Scarcity Programme, via the ‘Historic Droughts’ project.

Westminster, water supply resilience and climate change: a POSTbrief for parliamentarians

Dr Jade Ward has recently finished an Academic Fellowship at the UK Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) writing a POSTbrief on water supply resilience and climate change in England. The Fellowship was funded by the UK Droughts and Water Scarcity Research Programme.

POST makes the latest scientific research accessible to parliamentarians through the publication of POSTbriefs and POSTnotes. POST publications are impartial, balanced, peer-reviewed and evidence-based, covering a diverse range of topics that are of interest to policymakers. POST publications are also freely available to the public.

Introduction

The extensive drought of 1976 in the UK is etched in the memory of those who lived through it. For those of us who are too young to remember, the stories of stand-pipes in the street have been recounted many times. But how many people realise that England is heading for more frequent and severe water shortages in the future if no action is taken?

Having completed this Fellowship, I know the answer is, not many.

Water supply resilience and climate change is a vast and diverse topic, as evidenced by the wide-ranging and diverse work and content of About Drought, the UK’s Droughts and Water Scarcity Research Programme, funded by NERC. The POSTbrief I completed explores the drivers of drought and water scarcity, the water resource management framework and options to consider for building resilience into England’s water supply system. Climate change impacts will be similar across the UK, but as the environment is a devolved issue in Parliament, the nations of the UK manage their water resources in different ways. In England, private water companies have been responsible for water supply since privatisation in 1989.

The issues of water resilience and climate change

The public are, in general, unaware of the impending water scarcity crisis that could impact some areas of the UK as soon as the 2040s. Around the world, England is perceived as a place that gets a lot of rain, and it is no secret that everyone rejoices when the sun comes out, but in reality England is facing a water scarcity crisis. In fact, it doesn’t rain as much as you might think, especially in Eastern and Southern areas of the country, and population growth is putting increasing pressure on natural resources and the supply system. Climate change projections forecast hotter, drier summers and warmer, wetter winters in the UK. This increases the chances of extreme drought and flood events. The south east of England, with its high population density and drier climate, is already classed as a water stressed region and is likely to be the first to experience water shortages, but the whole country is at risk.

Over the past couple of decades, evidence for climate change and its impacts on water resources has been building, with researchers, water companies, trade associations, consultancies, non-governmental organisations and governmental departments all producing literature on the topic. The National Audit Office, The Public Accounts Committee and the Climate Change Committee have all given stark warnings about the risk to water supply if we don’t act now. However, to date, little progress has been made in policy to set targets and implement mechanisms to achieve them, from reducing carbon emissions to improving water supply infrastructure and water efficiency. Recent developments include the Environment Bill, the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan and the legally binding net zero carbon emissions by 2050 but implementation strategies will be key to meeting the targets.

In recent years, the impacts of climate change have become reality, with the UK experiencing more frequent severe flood and drought events. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of many systems, which have struggled to adapt to such an extreme global event. There is a growing understanding that such extreme events do occur, and the consequences are severe if our systems are not resilient. The water supply system suffered from increased demand during the first lockdown in March-July 2020 due to most people spending all their time at home coinciding with hot weather and the sunniest spring on record.

Building resilience in England’s water supply system

There is an established process for water resource management planning, with water companies required to produce 25-year water resource management plans (WRMPs) and revise them every 5 years. Until recently, this process has focussed on individual water companies managing water within their own area. However, the next review of water company plans, due in 2024, requires input from the new national framework for water resources and regional planning groups.

This new approach enables collaboration between regions and water companies, which will be required in the future to minimise the risk of shortages across the country. For example, large-scale inter-regional water transfers could be set up if droughts are forecast to occur at different times in different regions. The regional planning groups facilitate cross-sector collaboration for water resource management for the first time, recognising that the issues of water scarcity would have impacts across society. Water security is closely linked to food and energy security and the wider environment. For example, if ensuring the provision of public water supply led to water shortages for agricultural use this could reduce crop yield with impacts for food security, farming businesses, the food and drink supply chain and ultimately the public. Bringing the stakeholders together ensures that improving resilience in one sector does not leave another more vulnerable. This is called a systems approach, where cross-sector risks and trade-offs are explored under different management scenarios to develop integrated management plans.

Analysis of historic droughts continues to improve our understanding of such events and develop early warning systems for the future. These results can be used to inform the planning process. Going forward, a more integrated approach to modelling the water cycle – from rainfall, river and groundwater flow to water supply distribution systems – would better support the move to a systems approach for water resource management planning. These models would require sufficient data, with the potential to include real-time monitoring data in the future, which would enhance forecasting and decision-making.

Improving water efficiency, by reducing water consumption for individuals and businesses and making our appliances and properties more efficient, would ease demand on water resources.  This is likely to require an increased awareness of water consumption rates, as the majority of the public are not aware of how much water they use in a typical day or how much water their appliances use. Effective communication of water scarcity issues and the social, economic and environmental impacts, could help to empower citizens and businesses to be part of the solution.

Working with POST

My work began with a literature review of scientific papers, government reports, POSTnotes and more, to establish the key areas of focus and who I should interview for more information. Interviewing researchers (including the principal investigators and others across the DWS programme), stakeholders, regulators, and government departments is a key part of developing the POSTbrief. I really enjoyed speaking to such a wide range of people with different perspectives. Although I have been working in the water industry for nine years, I learnt a lot about different areas of research. My task was then to put it all together in a coherent, simple, impartial briefing to present an overview of the topic. Once complete, the POSTbrief was sent out to over 30 external reviewers, the majority of whom I had interviewed as part of the process. Their comments were incorporated into the final POSTbrief.

At the beginning of my Fellowship, I completed training in the POST style of writing and then learnt how to put this into practice throughout the editing and internal review process. It was sometimes quite a challenge to reduce such a complex topic into a short summary and make sure the main point is not missed. This is the true art of a POST publication!

Read the POSTbrief in full

Dr Jade Ward

About Drought launches new children’s competition with Waterwise

A new creative challenge to children to read and enjoy this engaging book has been lauched by About Drought, DRY and Waterwise.

The challenge encourages children aged 5-13 to use their imagination to illustrate what their community would look like if we all used water more wisely.

Based on the award winning book: DRY: The Story of a Water Superhero, the challenge provides an ideal opportunity to engage young people to think about water use and enable positive behaviour change.

The competition is now closed, winners will be announced in due course.

On the Judging panel Professor Lindsey McEwen of UWE, who leads the DRY Project, says:

This is a crucial time to engage young minds with the topic of water as a precious resource. The DRY book is designed for Key Stage 2 but we know it has wide appeal including KS1 and KS3. We are looking forward to seeing exciting and innovative ideas from children who are thinking creatively about the difference that their actions can make to their community, the environment and our planet in our changing climate.

Professor Lindsey McEwen, UWE

For more information and to enter check out the competition page

A Nationally Consistent Approach to Assessing Accumulated Rainfall Rarity

Accumulated rainfall totals are an important variable for a range of hydrological applications, including monitoring and forecasting, and long-term planning. A new report has been published which identifies the most appropriate, nationally consistent approach to quantifying return periods of long duration rainfall.

A comparison of the suitability of nine distribution families for estimating the relative rarity of accumulated rainfall periods across the UK provides opportunities to further improve the accuracy of return period estimation in many areas such as the water resource planning and the Hydrological Summary for the UK, and elsewhere.

Whilst distribution families that are commonly applied in extreme value estimation, such as the generalised extreme value, were demonstrated to be suitable in a lot of cases, overall Pearson Type III outperformed all other assessed distributions. Closer inspection of the performance on accumulation periods of 12 months or less provided further support for the suitability of Pearson Type III, as did the strong performance of Pearson Type III across accumulation periods, start months and regions.

Presentation of return level plots for two potentially appropriate distribution families demonstrated the sensitivity of return period estimates to distribution family, and thus the importance of this question. With this in mind, the approaches presented in Eastman et. al. (2021) provide opportunities to further improve the accuracy of return period estimation and uncertainty quantification.

The full report is now available

Figure 1 Northumbrian 12-month accumulation period beginning in October: return period plots for The Pearson Type III (pe3) and Generalised Extreme Value (GEV) distributions, with associated 95% confidence interval bands, and highlighted return periods corresponding to 48.09, 45.83, and 44.56 mm of rainfall per month. Points correspond to the Weibull plotting positions of the observed rainfall accumulation data.

REF: Eastman, MichaelParry, SimonSvensson, CeciliaHannaford, Jamie. 2021. A nationally consistent approach to assessing accumulated rainfall rarity. Wallingford, UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, 42pp.

About Drought briefing note: Drought monitoring and early warning

A new About Drought briefing note: Drought monitoring and early warning: new developments to meet user needs has been released. The note looks at the monitoring, forecasting and early warning needs for different sectors, the key new tools and strategies for monitoring and forecasting droughts, and highlights the ways that sectors such as water companies, regulatory bodies and the agricultural sector have used these tools so far. The note concludes by presenting applications for potential future uses.

The UK, while typically regarded as a wet country, is vulnerable to drought, particularly in some areas of the south and east. There is, therefore, a need for systems that contribute to robust decision-making relating to drought risk. Such systems need to cater for a diversity of sectoral needs. Based on recent drought research, a new suite of tools and approaches have been developed, leading to some advances in early warning capability in the UK of which the briefing note seeks to highlight.

This is the third of a series of briefs to support improved decision making concerning droughts and water scarcity. Click below to read the briefing note.

Front cover of drought monitoring and early warning brief
Drought monitoring and early warning: new developments to meet user needs – the third of a series of About Drought Briefing notes

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.