Monday, June 24, 2019

We need to talk about drought

June 3, 2019 by  
Filed under News & Business

Farmers and irrigators must find more robust solutions to secure water for food production, writes Melvyn Kay.

Agricultural droughts can happen fast – 10 days without rainfall and some crops can be in trouble. We are now well into 2019 and continuing low rainfall means rivers and groundwater flows are low – with summer irrigation prospects across drier areas now classed as “poor”.

Like it or not, droughts are no longer one-off events, they are here to stay. This means we must find more robust solutions to secure water for food production. So what can we do about it?

Ian Holman and Jerry Knox, of Cranfield University, have been grappling with this question for several years now as part of the Natural Environment Research Council’s Drought and Water Scarcity programme.

Flexible response

Many growers have already invested in on-farm reservoir storage to ‘scalp the floods’ and capture excess winter and occasional high summer river flows to make their businesses less reliant on increasingly vulnerable summer flow river flows.

Many growers have benefited from Environment Agency flexibility with regard to decisions on summer water trades, temporary abstractions, emergency abstraction applications, and extensions to the winter-filling period for farm reservoirs.

But what more can be done to increase resilience? Professors Holman and Knox highlight three opportunities.

First, information technology could enable better use of available surface water flows by integrating data from rivers with the flow conditions on abstraction licences to provide near real-time alerts to abstractors to take advantage of short-duration flow peaks.

Secondly, they suggest an urgent need to improve the evidence-base of the consequences of seasonal groundwater abstraction during drought events for in-river ecology, taking account of post-drought recovery.

Better evidence

Without robust and transparent evidence of abstraction impacts, drought restrictions which are imposed as a precaution risk compromising business sustainability and food security.

Thirdly, more integrated approaches to allocating water resources could pay major dividends. Options include sharing abstraction licences and farm reservoirs, working with public water suppliers and the development of secondary water markets.

Agriculture is not unique in terms of its exposure to drought risk. It will therefore be essential that all water users work together, including farmers, to reduce
the economic and environmental impacts of future droughts on society.

Doing this will help us all prepare for the next drought with improved resilience. This will be even more important when droughts follow dry winters – such as the one we have just experienced – and groundwater recharge is low.

Melvyn Kay is secretary of the UK Irrigation Association. This article is based on “We need to not be ‘surprised’ by the next drought” by Ian Holman and Jerry Knox, Cranfield University, and published by the Institute of Water.

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