Impact of the Media Drought in South-East England

Who’d Have Thought That, About Drought Podcast Four

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

Transcript of Podcast Four: Impact of the Media Drought in South-East England

Hello again and welcome to episode four in the Who’d had thought that, about drought podcast series. I’m Dr Rebecca Pearce and I am using this edition to pose a question: how, when, and through which media should we discuss droughts?

RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 © Karen Roe CC-BY-2.0
RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2014 by Karen Roe, licenced under CC BY 2.0

The 2004 – 2006 drought was once described by Philip Eden as one that was largely political, “characterised by extensive ‘spin’” (Eden, 2008, p160).

From my perspective, this drought coincided with a peak in interest in climate change and climate modelling. And at the same time, a peak in criticism of so-called fat-cat executives. Broadsheet newspapers regularly covered global warming as a topic, and still the scientific community were pushing against a heavy-weight of climate denial. Authors like Fred Pearce were busy writing end-of-life as we know it books like The Last Generation, warning us of the revenge nature would take against us for filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases and the weather certainly did appear to be changing. However, as the drought slowly developed, and hosepipe bans appeared, it was water company bosses who were criticised for taking large salaries and bonuses whilst their companies invested too little in repairing ageing infrastructure and preventing leaks. Not much had changed in that respect since 1995. Housing developers also came into the frame for building in places where there appeared not to be quite enough water to go around. This political hot-potato that no one wanted to face up to created a void that was filled by the media through endless column inches on gardening tips, Mediterranean planting schemes and water-saving devices.

It seemed as though the media were used to maintain the dialogue about dwindling water resources while water companies in the South-East entered into a battle of brinkmanship each waiting to see who would break first and have to apply for a drought order.

Gardeners were naturally concerned. Panic buying of water butts ensued and arguments began to rumble on in some sectors about the potential impacts of further water use restrictions.

With large parts of the UK unaffected, it is not surprise to me that I have had few people say they can remember this drought. After all, it appears to most that it was just all media hype and in the end, no severe disruption to services was felt. But what was it like to be in an industry where access to large quantities of water was critical to survival. I’m talking about the Horticultural industry.

I spoke to Bob about his long career in horticulture, which resulted in his being in charge of the Chelsea Flower Show throughout the noughties. We compared his experience of the 1976 drought when he was running a busy parks department on the Devon Riviera with the difficulty of trying to prepare for Chelsea, knowing that a drought order, if sought by Thames Water, might prevent it from going ahead. Here’s Bob on 1976…

Bob “I couldn’t help but remember the 1976 drought because probably for the first time in anyone’s memory, of anyone I was working with at the time, we suddenly saw that we couldn’t maintain what we were formerly maintaining with tap water. That suddenly became a no. There was a hosepipe ban being introduced; standpipes were being talked about, if not implemented, in the South Devon area, and there was no way that we could use tap water to water plants; it would’ve been outrageous. So we had to think of other means to do that, and one of the means was to take water which was in a local stream in Paignton, a stream which went on out to sea, extracting water from that, putting it in tankers and then transporting it round to the 12 bowling greens we had in the borough, plus a number of other ornamental horticultural features that needed maintaining. Of course, in manpower, it became quite an exercise, and let alone other resources that we needed, like hiring tankers. Tankers which, interestingly enough, might’ve been employed doing other things. For example, the tankers which would normally have to go round an empty out gullies for dealing with storm water and having debris in them… They were all bone dry, so they really didn’t have anything to do, so it was great that we could commandeer those to come and do other things. We then managed to maintain the areas and keep areas alive and functional at least for the summer.”

And here’s Bob on that agonisingly difficult time trying to decide what best to do for Chelsea…

Bob “Well, I think the position is that whilst you’re able to use mains water out of the tap, everything’s pretty hunky dory, isn’t it? Because you have potable water; you’re able to drink it; nobody really cares whether you put it on plants because it’s quite plentiful. But I think as soon as you have these drought type conditions and people start questioning what you’re doing, it begs so many questions about the ethic approach that you should be taking, and the ethical questions are all about… Is it right, then, to hold a flower show at all, or shouldn’t we hold it? And if we are going to hold it, how do you manage it and how do you keep it alive? If you don’t hold it – and just being absolutely blunt about it – it would make a more than considerable hole in the finances of an organisation like the RHS, who have increasingly relied more upon its income from Chelsea to maintain all the other activities it’s involved in. You take that out; what’s it not going to do? Is it not going to maintain some of its gardens? Is it going to get rid of all its gardeners? Is it going to stop running some of its horticultural work that it carries out so valuably? So I guess some of the problems we had to face was the fact that it was almost inconceivable that we would not have Chelsea flower show. It was perhaps more conceivable that there might be other shows that we wouldn’t run in a drought situation. But Chelsea had been through everything in a hundred years. It wasn’t quite a hundred years old in 2004, but it was in 2013. It didn’t run during the war years, either the first or the second, because the Royal Hospital grounds were used for growing vegetables during those periods, but on the other hand, a lot of that was demonstrable ways in which the nation decided to get on with life, wasn’t it? So that was good. You could almost argue that when we were faced with really hot weather, it was another demonstrable reason to show how we could overcome it. And so we needed to explore every way in which we could still hold the show without necessarily using mains water for anything other than giving to people to drink. And I always remember some of the arguments we had about that, because people used to get very hostile and write to us, or raise the question, “This is terrible the RHS are still holding this show with all these people coming to it,” but of course, the argument about that is, that we’re not eliminating people. They’re transpositioned people who instead of spending the day in Devon, they’re going to spend it in London. But arguably, they’re not going to drink any more in London than in Devon. The long and short of it is we decided at some considerable cost to have our own borehole, which we would then, regardless of whether there was a drought order, use that as a statement of fact of how we were going to run the show. We would use water from the borehole for flushing the loos with at Chelsea, and for watering plants – in other words, for non-potable use.”

Well, I never expected the RHS to eventually sink a borehole to secure water supplies that would be outside a drought order. But I think it is fair to say that newspaper speculation combined with not knowing how things were going to play out, necessitated this quite drastic and expensive outcome.

We’ll be talking about the ways in which drought is communicated, how and why communications happen the way they do, and the best ways to communicate in a crisis, at the About Drought Showcase on March 14th. I look forward to meeting some of you there.

More podcasts are available from the Experiences of Drought page.

© Dr Rebecca Pearce, University of Exeter, 2018