Trevor Bishop, Director, Water Resources South East & MD of H2Outcomes

Translating academic research for policy-makers

“About Drought has brought policy-makers, scientists and academics together and that is becoming more important because the complexities and uncertainties in the science are fundamental to making the best policy decisions, especially with climate change playing an increasing role”

Trevor Bishop, Director, Water Resources South East & MD of H2Outcomes

The person in the driving seat of the UK’s response to the 2012 drought was Trevor Bishop, then Deputy Director of Water Resources at the Environment Agency and Ofwat’s Director for Strategy & Planning during the 2018 hot dry summer of peak demand.

With a water crisis looming in 2012, he was appointed to co-ordinate the first multi sector cross cutting National Drought Group, reporting directly to the Government,  and bringing together companies, regulators and government departments, representatives of agriculture and power groups and chaired by the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman.

Trevor recalls: “In a worst-case scenario we were within 160 days of running out of water for some parts of London, with the 2012 Olympics on the horizon, 20 million people were on water restrictions and so were several thousand businesses for which water was critical.”

2012 drought triggered investment in research

Many parts of England had experienced the driest 18 months for more than 100 years and the crisis triggered the Research Councils’ £12m investment in the UK’s Drought & Water Scarcity Research Programme and several projects, now collectively known as About Drought.

He says: “About Drought is helping us to understand what the evidence is really saying so people like me can get behind the science. The events About Drought has held are the best I have seen at doing that.”

One of the most complex messages to translate from academia to policy and decision-makers is uncertainty. As a scientist by background, Trevor says: “Uncertainty is absolutely key, confidence in evidence data and About Drought’s better and more timely presentation of data is helping decision-makers to better manage uncertainty.

Trusted relationships for scientists and decision-makers

“The people making key decisions in a water crisis are generally not scientists and they may not always understand some of the subtleties behind academic report headlines. There are so many different layers in pure science, and decision-makers are always at risk of mis-representing some of the science.”

The solution is to build trusted, working relationships between policy-makers and the scientists behind the research, Trevor believes, involving more scientists in policy-making, working closely with universities and research organisations and maintaining that network beyond the life of the About Drought programme.

He explains: “Academics tend to operate in a semi-closed community but About Drought has brought policy-makers, scientists and academics together and that is becoming more and more important because the complexities and uncertainties in the science are fundamental to making the best policy decisions, especially with climate change playing an increasing role.”

Reliable data, meaningful and effective tools

The benefits of the relationships and community created by About Drought were felt in last summer’s dry spell. Trevor credits the MaRIUS project, in particular, with providing reliable data through meaningful and effective tools, such as the National Water Resources Model (WATHNET).

He says: “The models of drought we had were already starting to not perform as well as they used to because we are already seeing the subtle shifts that are taking place due to climate change, so we can’t rely on past data so much. But About Drought helped us and it was really good last summer to see key policy-makers and decision-makers thinking big and acting early.

“At least once a year we should bring this community we have formed together again – the policy-makers, the top scientists and academics – because that link needs to be rock solid.”

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

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