The UK and Ireland are generally thought to be relatively wet places. Droughts however are a present threat in the UK, as it has a variable temperate climate prone to dry spells all year round. Areas of the country are already water-stressed and face a wide range of pressures due to an expanding population and increasingly limited water resources.

Such pressures are likely to intensify with climate change, under which summers are forecast to become hotter and more prolonged, and continuing population growth which will place greater demand on water resources.

The impacts of drought

We can all recall the heatwaves of recent years which have set us on the brink of facing water scarcity following a meteorological drought (a shortfall in amount of rain), for example in 2018 and 2020. The most recent hydrological drought (a significant reduction in water availability in the land phase of the water cycle) in the UK hit us between 2010 and 2012.

This below average rainfall in much of the UK and a dry winter. This caused high soil moisture deficits, low river flows and low groundwater levels. Widespread temporary use bans including hosepipe bans were implemented.

In contrast, Ireland with its much wetter climate, is rarely under threat from drought with the last prolonged drought period occurring around 30 years ago. But it may be a challenge that will have to be broached in the future as Ireland faces a warming climate.

Hot summers leading to low river flows and low lake levels can cause severe impacts on our environment, killing resident fish and adversely affecting other wildlife. It reduces the chances of wading birds being able to breed and can result in outbreaks of poisonous blue-green algae in water bodies.

We often see fires break out on heath and moorland during dry spells which in turn can lead to problems with water quality in nearby reservoirs (and quantity when reservoirs are used as water sources to fight such fires).

A reduced flow of water to reservoirs during dry spells prevents reservoir refilling putting pressure on our water supply during periods of increased demand. As a last resort, when there are water shortages, water companies and other organisations may change how they operate licensed abstractions from rivers, reservoirs/lakes, and groundwater sources.

Drought is only going to be a growing problem in the future as climate change results in a shift to generally wetter winters but hotter (and hence potentially drier) and more prolonged summers.

Managing the challenges of drought

It is not realistic to completely avoid the occurrence or impact of drought, and the effects of drought can be very different from one year or one region to the next. What we can do is plan and put measures in place to avoid or minimise effects on the environment and water resources as much as possible.

One way we can all play our part in this at the individual level is by using water wisely.

When droughts do occur, restricting water use early on is a sensible option that should be considered by both water companies and consumers at home. It’s up to everyone to think about how we use water and ways to cut down on excessive use.

Working out methods to reduce the need for additional abstraction, such as tackling pipe leaks, are also a vital step.

From the water resources perspective, water companies in England and Wales are required to produce a drought plan every five years (or sooner if necessary) as set out in the Water Industry Act 1991 (as amended by the Water Act 2003) and described in the ‘Water company drought plan guideline’ published by the Environment Agency.

In Scotland, SEPA manages water scarcity as described in its National Water Scarcity Plan. Drought is rare in Ireland but it is covered by the National Water Resources Plan (NWRP).

All of these approaches are designed to set out how water resources will be managed prior to and during periods of prolonged dry weather, and ensure the correct balance is struck between protecting the environment and providing a resource for human and economic activity.

The drought plan must show how the company will maintain a secure water supply and protect the environment during ongoing dry weather and drought.

The water company’s drought plan must include recognition of and preparations for:

  • Drought triggers
  • Demand management actions
  • Supply management actions
  • Extreme drought management actions
  • Communicating during a drought
  • Environmental assessment, monitoring and mitigation
  • End of a drought

How APEM are supporting water companies

APEM has extensive experience working with water companies supporting them to meet their legal obligations for drought plans and managing abstraction.

Our remote sensing team can support with detecting pipe leaks and our field team are on hand to support the management of the consequences of drought such as fish rescues and habitat surveys.

Find out more about how APEM can help you prepare and manage drought in the future here.