Dr Alison Browne
It can be hard to understand exactly why, when it seems to have been raining for weeks on end, there is a hosepipe ban in place and your thoroughly wet locality has been declared a drought zone. This is one of the motivations behind the Environment Agency’s recent call for a new approach to the way we handle drought in the United Kingdom, a call that has been backed by experts from Lancaster University among others.
From my perspective, getting people to consider what they see as normal practice is a very interesting endeavour. For instance, why do many people shower seven times a week now when 30 years ago almost no-one had a shower unit? What has caused that shift?
Dr Alison Browne
A survey was carried out by researchers from the Lancaster Environment Centre (LEC) of 1800 people in the south east of England, the results of which showed that a hosepipe ban is itself a relatively ineffective water-saving measure. It transpired that more than a third had no lawn of outdoor plants to water and, of those that did, a quarter would wait for rain before watering.
The extremes of weather that seem to be occurring increasingly in the UK have thrown into relief the inefficiencies of the current methods of dealing with drought and flood, beginning with inadequate systems for communicating water status at any given time.
I spoke to Dr Alison Browne, a Senior Research Associate at the LEC, who believes that the UK could learn from the example of her native Australia how better to deal with water shortages. She began by explaining what recent events have taught us about the weaknesses of drought management in the UK.
"The recent drought and flooding have highlighted the fact that the mechanisms of dealing with climactic or weather variability here are not very good," Dr Browne stated. "Climate change projections for the UK show that swinging between extreme conditions such as flood and drought is only going to become more common in future.
"From a drought management perspective, the main weakness is that drought is seen as an ‘on/off switch’ kind of problem. Either there is drought and a hosepipe ban is put in place, or there is no drought and everything is business as usual. The impression that there is no lead-up time – no period of increasing dryness – is very misleading."
According to Dr Browne and her colleagues at LEC, a more gradual approach is necessary. Without channels of communication between water companies, who necessarily monitor the status of water reserves and supplies, government bodies and members of the public, there is no way to know that the situation is worsening towards drought until it is too late, she argued.
"The approach of water companies towards communicating weather variability has not been thought through very well," Dr Browne explained. "Rather than the baking grounds of Australia which people often associate with the word ‘drought’, the main problems lie with water storage and abstraction. However, there is still a build-up period to a critical moment which may or may not materialise."
Extending the comparison with Australia, although it may seem an extreme example, could provide real lessons for the UK, Dr Browne insists. There, depending on the State, there are between three and seven levels of drought risk, to which the appropriate response is accorded. In Queensland, for example, there are seven levels.
"A first level warning might involve a media campaign being initiated to warn people – by whom I mean householders, businesses and public bodies – to be careful about using water when a lack of rain is anticipated," she outlined.
If rain did not come, the next steps would include limiting the number of days on which you are allowed to water plants and lawns outdoors. The final step is an outright ban on watering, washing your car, filling your pool, or even taking water from inside outdoors. According to Dr Browne, it is important that householders do not feel they are being made solely responsible and that council and other public bodies play their part also.
"Councils will get in on it too, turning fountains off and not watering public gardens," she said. "Not only is there a direct channel of communication to householders, but there is an integrated approach that includes businesses in a region, particularly those such as hair salons or restaurants where a lot of water is used."
Perhaps the most useful mechanism that could be introduced to improve water and drought management therefore is a different framework of communication, involving a consideration of the way that drought orders and drought plans are put in place. As Dr Browne pointed out, this would constitute quite a significant change because it would be a legal requirement.
It would also involve a concerted strategy from the Environment Agency, the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat), the Department of Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) and utilities companies to establish such a framework. Along with colleagues Dr Will Medd and Dr Martin Pullinger from LEC and Dr Ben Anderson from Essex University, Dr Browne has voiced strong support for the Environment Agency’s recent call for something of this nature to be set up.
"It is important to not focus only on household consumption," she reiterated, stressing the role that all stakeholders have to play in the process of improving sustainable water management. "Thames Water, for example, are starting to develop water efficiency programmes in local areas that link up households, businesses, schools, councils and so on to try to get the message across to the whole community. This does make a difference because there is not the same sense of injustice on the part of the householder."
Dr Browne is also concerned with the psychology and sociological aspects of such environmental topics such as water management and believes that many relatively simple measures could have a big impact if they are widely adopted.
"From my perspective, getting people to consider what they see as normal practice is a very interesting endeavour. For instance, why do many people shower seven times a week now when 30 years ago almost no-one had a shower unit? What has caused that shift?"
An overall improvement in water efficiency might be achieved with the uptake of relevant technology and the adoption of water recycling techniques by homes and businesses. According to Dr Browne, larger water butts for harvesting rainwater can make a big difference, as can encouraging people to wash their clothes less often, which as well as saving water can extend the lifetime of items of clothing. She also praised the work done by gardening organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK on considering and promoting ways to make gardens more drought and flood tolerant.
Overall, although it may come down to the actions and habits of the individual, Dr Browne does not believe that householders, business owners and council leaders are ignorant of the causes and effects of excess dry or wet periods: "I don’t think it’s about ‘educating’ people; it’s about finding better ways to engage."