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More severe and widespread UK droughts projected

4 March 2013, by Alex Peel

UK droughts are projected to be more severe and affect larger areas of the country in the coming century.

Cracked wheat field

The findings, published in Water Resources Management, could have consequences for the way water is managed, particularly in South East England.

'If you have small, localised droughts, that's not so important from a water management point of view, because most utilities can move water in from another place,' says Professor Mark New of the University of Oxford, an author on the study.

'But if a drought affects a whole region like the South East of England, then you've got a more significant problem.'

To investigate the effects of future droughts on water resources, the team took a detailed look at regional climate data from the Met Office's Hadley Centre.

Their analysis suggests droughts could become more severe in the UK, particularly in the winter months and towards the latter half of the century.

They are also increasingly likely to affect more than one water region at a time.

'Both drought intensity and the spatial extent of droughts in the UK are projected by these climate models to increase into the future,' says New.

'The most vulnerable regions are in England, in particular the South-East; the least vulnerable are in Scotland.'

In England and Wales, water resources are divided into a number of regions, with private water companies taking responsibility for water supply in each.

'The most vulnerable regions are in England, in particular the South-East; the least vulnerable are in Scotland.'
Professor Mark New,
University of Oxford

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, water resources are overseen by single public organisations.

New believes that the increasingly widespread droughts of the future will require a more joined-up approach between neighbouring water regions.

'It's the southern water resource regions that need to think about shared risks,' he explains. 'They will increasingly have to think about how their resource scarcity problems link to adjacent regions as well as their own.'

'It's all very well borrowing from your neighbour if they've got something to lend, but if your neighbours are broke as well, then it becomes a bit of a problem.'

The news comes as chairman of the environment agency Lord Smith, called for action to make the UK more resilient to climate extremes.

Citing last years weather, which saw drought conditions quickly followed by a long period of flooding, Lord Smith called for new measures to manage Britain's water supply.

Low reservoir

Low reservoir.

New and his team will now investigate which long-term water management options are best for coping with the UK's future risk from droughts.

Among those options are controversial dam projects and water transfer systems, which involve moving water across the country from places of plenty to regions in need.

But softer options will also be considered, such as more aggressive measures to reduce demand on water resources.

'We're interested in which portfolio of adaptation options across water resource regions are the most effective for dealing with these broader scale droughts,' says New.

The research was supported by data facilities at NERC's National Centre for Atmospheric Science, and partly funded through the Adaptation and Resilience in a Changing Climate research programme.

Rahiz M, New M, 21st Century Drought Scenarios for the UK, Water Resources Management, 2013 doi: 10.007/s11269-012-0183-1

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Your comments

Errr.I think the current weather might suggest that once more climate scientologists have no idea what they are talking about

Alec Tritton, Gloucestershire
Wednesday, 5 February 2014 - 16:23

You plan financially in rich times for when the going gets tough. Same with water. The British isles as an entity is anything but short of water - ever. Even the Romans had an answer to that. If we believe there will be droughts (nothing indicates this to be the case) then water pipes from North to South are the solution. Why is it so difficult for the English to make sensible decisions? The Dutch do it quite well, so perhaps we should ask them? Drop HS2 for aquaducts. Only problem I see is an autonomous Scotland upping the price in the dry months ;-)

Jorgen Faxholm, Twickenham
Wednesday, 5 February 2014 - 17:42

"Errr.I think the current weather might suggest that once more climate scientologists have no idea what they are talking about"

Climate scientologists? How strange. In any case, predicting there'll be more droughts in future obviously isn't the same thing as predicting there will never again be floods or heavy rain. Sadly looking out of the window still doesn't give much insight into long-term climate change.

Tom Marshall, Planet Earth Online
Friday, 7 February 2014 - 16:36

Interesting, but this paper is not open access nor is it on NERC's NORA portal. Results appear to be important so I think that taxpayers and water providers should be able to see it to help plan for this uncertain future.

Steve Buss, Shrewsbury
Monday, 20 April 2015 - 12:51