Analysis of historic drought and water scarcity in the UK: a systems-based study of drivers, impacts and their interactions

Lead Research Organisation: H R Wallingford Ltd
Department Name: Water Management


Drought and water scarcity (D&WS) are significant threats to livelihoods and wellbeing in many countries, including the United Kingdom (UK). Parts of the UK are already water-stressed and are facing a wide range of pressures, including an expanding population and intensifying exploitation of increasingly limited water resources. In addition, many regions may become significantly drier in future due to environmental changes, all of which implies major challenges to water resource management. However, D&WS are not simply natural hazards. There are also a range of socio-economic and regulatory factors that may influence the course of droughts, such as water consumption practices and abstraction licensing regimes. Consequently, if drought and water scarcity are to be better managed, there is a need for a more detailed understanding of the links between hydrometeorological and social systems during droughts.
Based on an analysis of information from a wide range of sectors (hydrometeorological, environmental, agricultural, regulatory, social and cultural), the project will characterise and quantify the history of drought and water scarcity (D&WS) since the late 19th century and will produce the first systematic account (UK Drought Inventory) of droughts in the UK. The Inventory forms the basis of a novel joint hydro-meteorological and socio-economic analysis of the drivers of drought and their impacts, with a focus on a search for characteristic systems interactions. The enhanced systems-based understanding is expected to improve decision-making for future drought management and planning, including more informed and thus effective public discourse related to D&WS.
Currently there are no conceptual models of D&WS that describe interactions between hydrometerological and socio-economic drivers and environmental and societal impacts of droughts. The first task will therefore develop a new systems-based conceptualisation of D&WS. This will be used to investigate drought drivers, impacts and their interdependencies. The second task will produce the knowledge base for use within the project and the wider NERC UK Drought and Water Scarcity Programme. It involves the compilation of datasets and metadata, including data and information for selected case study episodes of D&WS. Information on the social and cultural aspects of D&WS will be compiled from oral histories and collation of reports in the historic and recent print and broadcast media, and the first analysis of social media from the 2010-12 drought will be carried out. The third task will develop the Drought Inventory by a novel combination of drought timelines, sector-specific narrative chronologies highlighting key events, and the production of new cross-sectoral drought indicators. To understand the interactions between social and environmental systems during D&WS episodes, the fourth task will: identify significant systems interactions across a range of droughts; identify key triggers and thresholds for droughts; and, describe the reasons behind any changes in systems interactions in droughts over the historic record. The final and fifth task examines how socio-economic context and water resource management practices contributed to resilience to episodes of D&WS in the historic record and considers the implications for changes in planning for the management of future droughts. It also provides an assessment of what are the most effective forms of dialogue and information exchange between the public and those responsible for water resource management that may contribute to beneficial outcomes during future episodes of D&WS.
The key research outcomes will be: a systems-based understanding of D&WS in the context of multiple environmental and societal drivers; an accessible, integrated cross-sector UK Drought Inventory; improved advice and methods to support decision making related to drought management; and, new strategies to re-frame public discourse related to D&WS.

Planned Impact

Due to the nature of the project, there will be multiple beneficiaries from the findings of the project. The following identifies who will benefit from the research and how they will benefit from different aspects of the proposed research.
The principal beneficiaries of the project will be: 1.) policy makers and environmental regulators in the UK; 2.) decision makers and water resource managers in water utilities; 3.) decision makers and managers in UK businesses where decisions related to water use and management are business-critical, including the agricultural sector; 4.) NGOs and Third Sector organisations with an interest in water resources issues and environmental management; 5.) the general public; 6.) communications professionals; 7.) academics and researchers with an interest in drought and water scarcity (D&WS); and 8.) the teaching profession, specifically those delivering key stage 3 and above related to environmental science.
The project will develop a systems-based understanding of D&WS. This will provide a framework for policymakers and environmental regulators, and those with responsibility for long-term water resource management to include and take account of broader socio-economic factors in decision making. Benefits will include improved, more integrated regulatory, planning and decision making processes related to D&WS in the UK.
The UK Drought Inventory, a cross-sector evidence base of historic episodes of D&WS produced by the project, will provide a common reference for policy makers and regulators, water supply companies, and UK business to make decisions in the context of D&WS and key reference droughts. This will enable the development of better drought mitigation plans, leading to improved long-term management of water resources and a reduction in the cost of droughts to UK business. Because it is a common evidence base, it will enable more consistent, transparent planning against standard benchmarks across multiple agencies.
The project will produce improved advice and methods to support decision making related to drought management during episodes of D&WS. Regulators, water resources managers, UK industry, particularly the agricultural sector, with responsibilities for strategic and operational decision making during episodes of D&WS will benefit from the advice, guidance and new methods developed to support decision making. Benefits will include more effective and timely management interventions as droughts develop and as they end; interventions based on commonly agreed principles and evidence; and, more certainty in management and co-ordination of response to droughts.
The development of new strategies to re-frame public discourse related to D&WS is a specific goal for the project. Beneficiaries of these new strategies include: policy makers and regulators; water supply companies; the public; and, NGOs and community groups, particularly those who are responsible for providing information for and engaging in dialogue with the public on issues related to water resources. The benefits include a more informed public debate around issues associated with D&WS; greater clarity regarding decision making process during droughts; wider consensus regarding the positive contribution the public can make to best water resource outcomes during episodes of D&WS.
The project will deliver a series of significant new resources for academics and researchers working in the field of drought research, that when combined with outputs from the other UK Drought Programme projects will have a significant international impact and will lead to major advances in research in this field.
The resources proposed to be developed for teachers as part of the follow-on knowledge exchange activities will provide teachers with appropriate, authoritative materials that will make their teaching of issues related to water resources more effective and will contribute to a more informed generation of young people.
Description Understanding historical drought variability is vital underpinning for water resources management and planning. While, increasingly, planners test against droughts that are more severe than those witnessed in past records using stochastic techniques, such methods are contingent on our understanding of observed variability. Historical records also provide a baseline against which future changes can be compared and, crucially, emerging trends detected. While a number of recent studies have improved our awareness of historical droughts, most of these have focused on one aspect of the hydrological cycle (either rainfall, river flow or groundwater), or have attempted to integrate these components but with a limited spatial or temporal coverage. Moreover, while past droughts are routinely run through current water supply systems, there have been few attempts to understand how past droughts actually manifested themselves in terms of water availability (i.e. supply/demand balances). The novelty of the present study is the integration of meteorological, hydrological, hydrogeological and water supply 'timelines' into a quantitative, consistent framework for characterising past droughts. We take advantage of newly available reconstructed records to analyse droughts back to the 1890s at the national scale. Using consistent metrics, we assess past drought occurrence in each of these components of the hydrological cycle and consider the implications of the observed differences between them. We also examine trends and variability in the datasets to shed light on whether droughts are becoming more severe or frequent from a long-term perspective.
Exploitation Route The findings are being taken forward into the UK water resources industry as it looks to enhance our level of drought resilience. The outputs in terms of hindcast climatological, hydrological, groundwater, system storage are invaluable to allowing water companies and regulators to understand the types of droughts to which we have been subjected to in the past and to place future risks under a changing climate into context.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The work on this project has contributed to other activities, including: 1. Met Office for the Adaptation Sub-Committee 2015 Technical Report: Developing H++ climate change scenarios for heat waves, droughts, floods, windstorms and cold snaps. 2. Research for the UK Water Industry Research Ltd on new Risk Based Planning Methods 3. Research for individual water companies on historical droughts 4. Peer review of a National Water Resources Strategy study (Water UK/Requested by Defra) 5. Contributions to training materials delivered to World Bank and Asian Development Bank in US, Ethiopia, Philippines and Singapore. 6. Contributed to UK Water Industry Research Ltd studies on Drought Vulnerability Framework and Climate Change and WRMP process 7. Poster presented at AWRA Annual Conference (November 2018) and contributed to presentation at same conference 8. Contributed to poster presentation at Groundwater Modeller's Forum (October 2017) 9. Data inventories of drought impacts and reservoirs uploaded to project inventory 10. Evidence assimilated into 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment, water availability study quantifying the projected impacts of climate change and demand growth (considering all sectors) on UK water resources and the potential for adaptation 11. Presentation at AWRA 2019 summer conference, "National assessments of current and future climate-related risks to secure future water supplies"
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Energy,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Description Non Executive Environment Advisor to Severn Trent Water
Geographic Reach Local/Municipal/Regional 
Policy Influence Type Participation in a advisory committee
Impact Providing advice on climate resilience, including drought, to the company as part of the Water Forum, which is set up to provide challenge to the company board.
Description Participation in Review Committee for National Infrastructure Commission
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact Is leading to evolution and improvements to how drought resilience is considered in the UK
Description Support to running of regional drought exercise
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Membership of a guideline committee
Impact Has led to greater appreciation of the challenges that would be faced in responding to drought in the UK
Title Inventory of reservoirs amounting to 90% of total UK storage 
Description This dataset is an inventory of reservoir details for the UK. It provides information, including reservoir location, type (impounding or non-impounding), use (water resources, hydro-electric, ecological, flood storage, canal), capacity, planning date, construction date, catchment National River Flow Archive (NRFA) gauge references and membership of a reservoir group, based on current usage within the CEH Monthly Hydrological Summary ( The dataset comprises 273 individual reservoirs, which amount to approximately 90% of total UK reservoir storage. Data quality has been recorded, using a data flag system and a notes section, with references relevant to each reservoir provided. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Description ADB climate change knowledge partnership 
Organisation Asian Development Bank
Department Environment, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management
Country Philippines 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Providing training in climate change and adaptation
Collaborator Contribution Sharing knowledge
Impact Training Research Dissemination
Start Year 2014
Description Anglian Water 3rd Dry Winter Drought Scenario 
Organisation Anglian Water Services
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Provision of models and staff expertise to undertake case study analysis.
Collaborator Contribution Provision of data to support case study analysis.
Impact Project report.
Start Year 2015
Description Drought Vulnerability Fraemwork 
Organisation UK Water Industry Research Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Development of methodology for assessing drought resilience of water resources system
Collaborator Contribution UKWIR requested support in developing methods ofr industry application
Impact Framework report with methods for assessing drought resilience
Start Year 2017
Description Southern Water: Guidance of definition of a "reasonable drought" 
Organisation Southern Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Development of methods for analysis of low rainfall over long duration using General Pareto Distribution and GEV methods. Advice on what are "reasonable droughts" to include in planning processes. Report to guide the water company's water resources planning approach.
Collaborator Contribution Workshop discussions on drought definition and metrics in the water industry. Provision of data for analysis and feedback on our methods.
Impact Met Office report on drought estimation in Southern England for low rainfall and low river flows.
Start Year 2016
Description UKWIR Risk Based Planning Methods 
Organisation UK Water Industry Research Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Review and advice on methods for risk assessment of hydrological and water resources drought
Collaborator Contribution Workshop sessions, access to water companies etc...
Impact UKWIR: Risk Based Methods for Water Resources Planning
Start Year 2015
Description Water Resources East 
Organisation Anglian Water Services
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Review and further development of stochastic rainfall generators for the development of drought scenarios. Climate change risk assessment
Collaborator Contribution Workshops, provision of data etc....
Impact 2 reports to date
Start Year 2016
Description Water UK - Water resources long term planning framework 
Organisation WS Atkins
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Hydrological analysis and simulation of historical drought events and stochastic drought events at a national scale for input to water resources modelling as part of a national long term planning study.
Collaborator Contribution Partners undertook collaborative research in the analysis of water resources, water demand, economic appraisal of water resources strategies.
Impact Multi-disciplinary including physical science and economist.
Start Year 2015
Description Water UK Peer Review Group 
Organisation UK Water Industry Research Ltd
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Charity/Non Profit 
PI Contribution Peer review panels Contract research
Collaborator Contribution Funding
Impact Multidisciplinary
Start Year 2015
Description World Bank Disaster Risk Assessment 
Organisation World Bank Group
Department Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery
Country United States 
Sector Multiple 
PI Contribution Developing training in disaster risk assessment including drought risk assessment
Collaborator Contribution Sharing knowledge from around the world
Impact Training of around 70 economists in developed and developing countries
Start Year 2014