Drought investment must remain priority, experts urge

Drought experts have highlighted the need to continue investing and preparing for droughts to ensure England is in the best possible position to deal with extreme weather events and a changing climate. 

The National Drought Group, chaired by Environment Agency Executive Director John Leyland, came together to discuss the proactive steps being taken to ensure water resilience ahead of future droughts. The Group explored how all sectors can better collaborate to join up how they communicate drought, plan for future droughts, and explore quicker delivery on larger and more strategic resource options.

Although there are no areas in England currently in drought, preparation for dry weather remains crucial. Parts of Devon and Cornwall entered ‘recovering’ status on 2 October and all catchments in East Anglia moved to ‘normal’ status from 20 November.

National Drought Group members heard that:

  • England has experienced the third wettest autumn this century, which has helped to improve the water resources outlook. Despite the improved position, the Group continues to prepare for future droughts in light of increasingly volatile weather patterns due to climate change.
  • El Niño has officially been declared by the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), which is likely to bring a milder, stormier start to the winter.
  • The EA is taking action to get ahead of drought, including updating its operational area drought plans, updating water company drought plan guidance, and working on longer term improvements with drought resilience.
  • Water companies are undertaking winter communication campaigns and focusing on reducing leakage – and to halve it by 2050.
  • All sectors continue to implement recommendations to improve drought preparation and response – including learnings from the 2022 drought.
  • The Consumer Council for Water shared an update on its work on drought messages.
  • Natural England explained how it is working with the EA and other environmental groups to better describe environmental impacts of drought.
  • The National Farmers Union explained the work to support the agriculture sector improve its resilience to droughts.

The National Drought Group (NDG) is made up of senior decision-makers from the Environment Agency, government, water companies and key representative groups.

Environment Agency Executive Director and NDG Chair John Leyland said: 

“Whilst reservoir levels have improved right across the country, the summer of 2022 was a stark reminder that drought can happen at any time.

“Population growth, climate change and urbanisation are already impacting our long-term water security, meaning that water companies and other industries must find new ways to preserve and replenish our most precious resource. This includes further action by water companies to halve leakage by 2050.

“That is why the Environment Agency is continuing to take vital action to secure future water supply, working with water companies to refine their Water Resource Management Plans (WRMPs) and advise on necessary improvements, whilst aiding other sectors – including agriculture and housing development – and local authorities in their water-saving efforts.”

The meeting follows the publication of the Chief Scientist’s Group’s review of the research and scientific understanding of drought, which saw over 40 academics from 13 different universities, research institutes and consultancies come together to review current knowledge about drought in the UK. The review was commissioned following 2022’s record temperatures and subsequent drought conditions.

The review explored how drought may alter due to climate change, and what the implications are for both the catchment environment and water management. Working with the panel of experts, the Environment Agency identified ways to improve drought management and research, including how to improve resilience, monitoring, and forecasting, as well as drought communications with the general population.

Led by Chief Scientist Dr Robert Bradburne, the Chief Scientist’s Group leads on science, research, monitoring, analysis, and evaluation for the Environment Agency.

Current situation

England is experiencing more extreme weather more often, with devastating floods hitting parts of the country during the Autumn.

As of 30 November, reservoir stocks in England were at 88% of total capacity, and most rivers, reservoirs and groundwater are above where we would expect them for this time of year.

The remaining parts of Devon and Cornwall in ‘drought’ moved into ‘recovery’ on 2 October 2023 following recent rainfall, increased reservoir levels and efforts from customers to conserve water.

Likewise, all remaining catchments in East Anglia that were ‘recovering’ moved to ‘normal’ on 20 November 2023. Rainfall has improved the water resource outlook by replenishing reservoirs and groundwater. However, the environment takes longer to recover, and it is important we all reduce water use to protect habitats and species.

The Plan for Water

The government’s integrated Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to tackle pollution and secure a plentiful supply of water. This includes:

  • £2.2 billion of new, accelerated investment by water companies to spend on infrastructure to tackle pollution and increase our water resilience.
  • A second £10m round of Water Management Grants to fund more on-farm reservoirs and better irrigation equipment.
  • A new National Policy Statement on water resources so that key water supply infrastructure – such as reservoirs and water transfer schemes – can be built more quickly.
  • Unlocking an additional £469 million in investment to develop new large-scale water infrastructure, including transfers, recycling, and reservoirs through the Regulators Alliance for Progressing Infrastructure Development (RAPID) programme.
  • Actions to meet our statutory water demand target to reduce the use of public water supply by 20% per person by 2038. This includes encouraging water companies to consider how to rapidly increase smart meter installations for household and non-household customers and delivering a mandatory water efficiency label on water-using products by 2025.
  • Setting ambitious targets for water companies to crack down on leakage, facing financial penalties if they don’t meet them.



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