Communicating Drought

The UK experienced major flooding in the north of England in 2015 that followed on from winter storms and wider flooding in 2013/2014. This explains the current focus on flood risk management. However, think back to 2012 and during the London Olympic games there were temporary use bans (hosepipe bans/ watering restrictions) and a real potential for needing further measures to guarantee supply to customers. Even with heavy rainfall the impact to groundwater levels meant that these watering restrictions remained in place for some time. With greater hydrological extremes occurring due to climate change we need to prepare for drought as well as flooding.

Example advertising from Thames Water during the 2012 drought (Waterwise and WWF, 2013)

Jamie Hannaford from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology presented to the Chartered Institute of Water and Environment (CIWEM) Water Resources Panel's May 2016 meeting on "Improving drought information for decision making" and the recent research research funded by NERC and other research councils. Water companies are currently updating their drought and water resources management plans - this provides an opportunity to consider and test new approaches to communicating drought risk to customers and using this to support water efficiency efforts.

 Below I reference several recent research projects in the context of how can we better communicate drought?

Monitoring and communicating drought

The 2012 drought was the first time that a new range of Temporary Use Bans were implemented. I worked on a project for UK Water Industry Research to understand the impacts of these restrictions on water use both qualitatively in terms of customer views and quantitatively in terms of water use (see presentation for CIWEM Annual Conference 2014). Although the impacts of water use were hard to statistically support due to the timing of the implementation with heavy rainfall and flooding, there was a clear message from businesses and households that they'd like better communication in the run-up to a drought. Earlier communication around the drought led to some water company customers having a better understanding of the issues and potentially supported reduced consumption (UKWIR Report).

The DRIVER project is assessing monitoring and early warning systems in the US, Europe and Australia. Some examples of these approaches are provided below and include indicators of drought beyond communicating groundwater levels or river flows as currently practised in the UK (see monthly hydrological summaries).

Examples of drought monitoring and early warning systems (Hannaford, 2016)

A UK Drought Portal is now being produced using various standardised indexes of precipitation, evapotransporation, streamflow and groundwater levels. These enable communication of drought at a higher resolution and easier comparison between different parts of the country. This will soon be updated with 'live' monthly data. A drought portal brining together data sources could also address a criticism from communications during the 2012 drought around the need for water companies to use bring together wider datasets in communications (see Waterwise and WWF report).
CEH UK Drought Portal 
Part of the research is assessing how the indexes can be linked with drought impacts and decision making by government and water companies. However this could also provide an improved communication tool for the public. Businesses are increasingly looking to monitor climate change risks and drought can have significant impacts. 

A recent report on "Managing Drought: Learning from Australia" was published by the Alliance for Water Efficiency, Institute for Sustainable Futures, and the Pacific Institute. A key finding of this report was "Clear, credible communication about the drought situation and response is paramount to public participation and support". This highlights the need for multi-modal communication on both water storage levels and water savings. Australian utilities produce daily figures of water availability for the media/ government (example below) and this information was important to support community awareness and social marketing approaches to change water using behaviours. This is supported by a Waterwise and WWF report on the 2012 UK drought suggesting that drought communications would have been easier with a higher background level of demand-side knowledge amongst the public. 
Water supply and demand data Water Corporation 27 May 2016

The UK could benefit from improved communication of water use linked to water availability. Although the Drought Risks and You (DRY) research project includes an element of demand through a community water use survey, more research is needed on the potential drought monitoring communication to support improved implementation of water efficiency measures during the next drought. A lack of sufficient demand monitoring hindered the ability to determine any statistical reduction in water use due to hosepipe bans during the 2012 drought. There is also a lack of comparability between water company datasets due to varying availability of occupancy data, socio-economic classifications, and standard industry classification for non-domestic use.

Going forward another area to consider is communicating both drought and flood risk to households to support integrated water management actions. For example, rainwater harvesting either through use of a water butt or a fully plumbed system can have benefits during flooding and drought events. Better communicating the risks may support incentive programmes around improved water management in buildings also.


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