Who knows what drought is?


Much of the UK entered a period of drought this year at the start of April following two of the driest winters on record and a bizarrely warm March.

The relatively dry weather over the last two years can be attributed to a combination of factors, according to Vicky Pope, the Met Office’s drought co-ordinator. These include: the phases of large-scale weather systems, such as the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) and El Nino; the solar cycle; and levels of sea ice.

‘Any one of these things on their own is not enough to have a big impact and there’s lots of things going on at a more local scale,’ said Pope. ‘But if you put them together then we get these very cold dry winters.’

Even though official drought status was removed from 19 counties on 11 May, much of the UK is still experiencing a rainfall deficit, which means that our water resources have not replenished to their normal levels – despite the fact the UK has just experienced its wettest April since records began in 1910.

So why aren’t we out of trouble, I hear you ask? According to a panel of experts speaking at a media briefing in London this week, it’s been the wrong type of rain. We need sustained periods of damp, cool weather for water to successfully percolate down to the underground groundwater resevoirs, which are responsible for meeting 50 per cent of the UK’s overall water demand.

Fortunately, the short, heavy showery rain we had in April had some impact on the most severely depleted groundwater reserves in the southeast of England, where relatively permeable chalk allowed surface water to percolate down through cracks to where it was needed. However, the rain in April has had no impact on many of the sandstone groundwater reserves further north.

The astonishing topsy-turvy weather over the last two months has brought about the question as to whether we now need new terminology. For example, it’s hard to tell someone the country is in a drought as floodwaters surge past their home.

The issue, according to the Environment Agency’s head of water resources, Trevor Bishop, is that the word ‘drought’ is too much of a blunt expression. ‘We use the term to represent a real plethora of situations,’ he said. ‘For some farmers, drought might mean they can’t grow cereals, but for others, it might mean the perfect climate for asparagus.’

He continued: ‘People will lose confidence if you tell them there is a drought on while their house is flooded. We may need more sophisticated language. And the more people understand the fundamentals of water resources, the more sophisticated we’re going to have to get.’

So now it’s hot again is the dreaded D-word that plagued our weather broadcasts and sent shivers down the spines of horticulturalists only weeks ago about to return?

Bishop said that the status of our groundwater reserves is unlikely to change through the summer but if a heat wave were to occur it could place a significant strain on already struggling water reserves. Pope said it is very hard to predict what this year’s British summer has in store for us.

While you and I may be praying for the good weather to continue, Bishop confessed that he isn’t lusting after a long, hot summer.

Engineers and water companies are starting to discuss the possibility of transporting water from areas where there is a surplus to areas where there is a shortage. Indeed, at the start of April, Severn Trent Water was looking at the possibility of pumping its excess water 80 miles to Anglian Water.

Civil engineers will be meeting in London on 8 June to discuss other solutions that could be used to meet water consumption demands across the UK.

For a nation that is always complaining about the abysmal weather we have to put up with, it’s hard not to get excited when the sun comes out. But is the word ‘drought’ doing it’s best to dampen our spirits?