Serving the Farming Industry across East Anglia for 35 Years
Last summer's agricultural drought has lessons for us all, says Melvyn Kay. Why we must learn to live with drought

In an uncertain world, drought is something all farmers can rely on – including those who irrigate. Which is why we must learn to live with lack of rainfall, even though we cannot forecast when the next drought will occur.

Summer 2022 was the worst UK agricultural drought since 1976 – and Europe’s worst in 500 years. Droughts are becoming more frequent and lasting longer as climate change increases temperatures and water availability becomes more unpredictable. Sadly, we need a severe drought to put water for food security onto the front pages of newspapers, radio, and TV. Drought’s biggest enemy is complacency. It sets in when the rain returns. It’s a global problem. Short-term emergency measures have helped some farmers, but they are not sustainable. We need more robust solutions that enable farmers to adapt to changing weather patterns and minimise impacts on food security, farm incomes, and the environment. We cannot eliminate drought – doing so would be far too costly. But we can mitigate its effects and learn to live with it.

Changing climate

It’s not all about global warming. We hear a lot about climate change as the driver increasing drought frequency and severity. But weather matters for farmers and growers in the short and medium term. Climate change tells us that rainfall will be more erratic in the future and can help long-term planning, whereas weather tells us it will be dry over the next week and whether we may need to start irrigating crops. Many of the ups and downs in our weather are actually “normal” and not always due to climate change. Perhaps the world’s most important weather-making phenomenon is the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) that sloshes back and forth across the Pacific Ocean every few years. ENSO creates havoc with weather patterns far beyond the Pacific. It was responsible in 2022 for the horrendous floods in Australia and Pakistan and severe droughts across the USA and north Africa. It impacts the jet stream, which is responsible for our weather too. Climate change is just a bolt-on to ENSO but just try separating them – it’s a scientist’s nightmare.

Different options

Copying with drought is hard. But there are some useful tools – like the Cranfield University D-Risk tool, which helps growers assess drought risks given certain storage, crops and licence options. The tool is able to include rainwater harvesting to help soft fruit, veg and salad growers to assess water available from glasshouses and tunnels. Those equipped for irrigation have more water security, but those with a licence to abstract directly from rivers in the summer can only take water when it is available. They risk a Section 57 Notice, which makes it illegal to take water when rivers run dry. Those with a winter licence have the advantage of more plentiful river flows, but there is the high cost of the reservoir needed to store the water. Farmers are encouraged to invest in reservoirs with government grants available to support construction costs. But the pathway to completion is a painful one at present. First, you need a winter licence, which can take up to six months, then clearance from Natural England and the local archaeologists and planning permission from the local authority. But farmers are in a Catch-22. By the time they get agreement from everyone, the costs have risen and put the project out of reach financially. There are many unhappy farmers out there who are stuck in this process. It needs streamlining if we are serious about producing more food at home rather than ‘letting others feed us’ mode. Other options being explored include water-sharing schemes, which enable groups of farmers to take full advantage of water available within a catchment when not all abstractors are irrigating.

Melvyn Kay is executive secretary of the UK Irrigation Association. For more details, visit www.ukia.org

Are you ready for thenext drought?

Take full advantage of expert advice on drought mitigation at the forthcoming UK Irrigation Association Conference on 1 March in Peterborough. For full details and other information on drought, go to www.ukia.org