UK water scarcity and drought

Our changing climate is leading to increased risks from both flooding and from water scarcity. Floods have dominated our news in the UK over recent years, but it is just as important to plan for, adapt and be resilient to the impacts of drought caused by climate change.

The maintenance of people’s well-being and social order are closely linked to adequate supplies of clean water. Water scarcity should be as much a part of climate discussions as carbon emissions reduction and net zero targets. Water security needs to be central to all decisions made on planning, development, and investment.

“Drought is on the verge of becoming the next pandemic and there is no vaccine to cure it. Most of the world will be living with water stress in the next few years. Demand will outstrip supply during certain periods.”

UN Secretary General’s special representative for disaster risk reduction

The Committee on Climate Change recently released a report on how well the UK is preparing. It noted that we have well-developed policies in place to manage water scarcity, maintain water supplies and protect the environment, but there is still more work to do. Water supplies in the UK are not as secure as people would like to believe.

In 2020, the Environment Agency published a National Framework for Water Resources. It showed that if we continue to operate ‘business as usual’ by 2050:

  • the amount of water available in England could be reduced by 10 to 15%;
  • some rivers could have between 50 and 80% less water during the summer; and
  • we will not be able to meet the demands of people, industry and agriculture.

This means less predictable rainfall and higher drought risk, caused by the hotter drier summers. In 2020, thousands of customers in south-east England found themselves without tap water. A growing population’s thirst in increasingly frequent heatwaves is a now an operational challenge for the UK. So it is vital for water companies to constantly review how resilient their distribution networks are to more extreme weather, to ensure they can keep potable water flowing from our taps, to reduce the amount of water leaking from pipes, and to help their customers to save water.

The EA identify three main types of drought: Environmental, Agricultural and Water Supply. However, unlike flooding where effects are immediate and readily visible, drought effects take much longer to manifest and for the impacts to become evident, making planning for drought all the more challenging. Indeed, many believe hindsight is the best way to judge if a drought has occurred.  River levels drop steadily and there is a time lag before signs of stress materialise for wildlife, fish and habitats. Abstraction for irrigation may become constrained by environmental conditions and licence conditions.  Eventually, after water companies have followed their drought plans using short-term actions to monitor and manage the impact of drought conditions, concerns may arise regarding water supplies for customers, leading ultimately to possible drought orders and restrictions.

Our changing climate is leading to increased risks from both flooding and from water scarcity. It is just as important to plan for, adapt and be resilient to the impacts of drought caused by climate change, as it is flooding. Closer integration of flood risk and water resource management policy and combining expertise across hydrology and hydrogeology will help us prepare, adapt and to be ready for the increasing risks, both from flooding and drought. This includes a programme that combines demand management and leakage reduction, but also seeks to increase reservoir storage of winter rainfall, to enable the strategic transfer schemes needed to manage the risk from more frequent drought (e.g. between the northwest and southeast).

Want to know more?

As part of our wider comprehensive climate change and resilience service JBA supports a wide range of organisations at all scales to adapt and be ready for and resilient to drought, from regional water companies, industry, to private water supplies. From county-wide drought orders to new boreholes, we provide expertise for those requiring or utilising water resources. For more information contact Eleanor Williams.



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