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

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

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

A Water Strategy for UK Agriculture

Increasing the farming sector’s resilience to drought and water scarcity risks

Water is at the heart of farming and agri-businesses, particularly in eastern England, the east midlands, and south-east, the driest and most water-stressed areas in the UK. Without water most agri-businesses would simply not survive. Irrigated agriculture supplies the UK’s agri-food industry with substantial quantities of high-quality potatoes, fruit and vegetables. But increasing regulation, droughts and a changing climate all threaten the sustainability of this industry and the rural livelihoods it supports. While other sectors and businesses have water strategies, the agriculture sector does need. Agriculture therefore needs a water strategy to ensure that it receives a fair share of the nation’s available water resources.

To address this need researchers at Cranfield University have been working in partnership with the National Farmers Union (NFU), the UK Irrigation Association (UKIA) and other stakeholders to develop a collective vision. The strategy sets out some guiding principles and proposes actions grouped according to the following themes:

  • Manage current and future demand in abstraction ‘hotspots’
  • Address environmental challenges linked to over-abstraction and climate change
  • Build water infrastructure to provide resilience for farming businesses
  • Promote business growth and support multi-sector stakeholder engagement

Drought and Agriculture Synthesis Report

The Agricultural Synthesis report summarises the key findings that emerged from the five Drought and Water Scarcity programme projects to help the UK agriculture and horticultural sector to better understand, forecast, manage and respond to the challenges posed by droughts and water scarcity. The report summarises how drought and water scarcity affects agriculture, and the consequent impact on rainfed and irrigated agriculture. The report also considers drought forecasting and whether drought and water scarcity impacts can be reduced.

About Drought Download Nov 7th

All the data, all the learnings, all the resources, all in one place!

Thursday, November 7, 2019 from 10 am to 3.30 pm
Location: The Royal Society, London, SW1Y 5AG
Registration: via Eventbrite – free to attend but spaces are limited (note that registration closes on the 23rd of October)
Programme: draft programme (PDF)

Draft programme for the About Drought Download conference (available as PDF from in page link)
Draft programme

About Drought Download is the final event of the 5-year UK Drought and Water Scarcity Research Programme, showcasing the difference our work is already making. Register via Eventbrite – there is no charge for this event, but registration is necessary and spaces are limited. Please note that registration closes on the 23rd of October.

See the draft programme, so you can plan to attend this accessible, stimulating day. The event is aimed at decision-makers in water supply, the energy industry, policy, business, environment, agriculture or the public sector. Visitors can engage with hands-on multi-disciplinary programme outputs, listen to and question programme experts in a wide range of drought-related fields, network with people working on drought, and meet users of the outputs from the programme.

  • How is climate change affecting water supply in the UK?
  • What does it mean for policy and industry?
  • What forecasting breakthroughs have been made & how are these already being used?
  • How can we protect the UK’s natural landscape from water shortage?