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.