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No room for drought: Steps to improve the UK agricultural sector’s resilience to drought and water security

Policy@Manchester

7 min read Partner content

In 2022, the UK experienced its fifth driest summer since 1836. Combined with record-breaking temperatures, this led to severe drought conditions across the country, with key agricultural regions as some of the worst affected areas. The drought resulted in widespread reductions in crop yields and harvested areas, as dwindling water supplies in soils, rivers, and reservoirs left farmers struggling to meet crop water demands.

Dr Timothy Foster from The University of Manchester explores how to implement the significant changes necessary to manage and share water in the UK’s agricultural sector.

  • Extreme droughts are likely to become more frequent and severe while demand for water will simultaneously rise in every sector of society, with pressure greatest in the South and East of England.
  • Rules around who is allowed to extract water from river and aquifers are out-dated, and the agricultural sector has little flexibility to respond to emerging risks.
  • A multi-pronged approach is needed which includes reform to abstraction management rules, investment in nature-based solutions, and support data collection.

While 2022 was an extreme drought year by historical standards, such events are likely to become the norm in the years to come. Projections by the UK’s Met Office and Centre for Ecology and Hydrology suggest average summer rainfall and river flows in the UK could decline by approximately 25% and 45% respectively by 2050, with extreme drought events also expected to become more frequent and severe. Simultaneously, demands for water will rise in every sector of society, as higher temperatures increase water requirements of crops and population growth drives up water demand from domestic users. Pressures on water will be greatest in the South and East of England, where the UK grows much of its high value horticulture and water intensive crops (such as potatoes), and where agriculture is already struggling to cope with risks posed by water scarcity.

We need significant changes to the way we manage and share water in the UK to reflect growing water risks faced by our agricultural sector. We must draw on lessons from other countries, such as the United States, Australia, and in southern Europe, that have faced water scarcity pressures for several decades.

Reform abstraction management policy

Rules around who is allowed to extract water from rivers and aquifers in the UK were originally devised and set up in the 1960s when water scarcity was far from the national policy agenda. However, failures in policy and management to evolve over time mean that many catchments are now classified as over-abstracted (more water is used than is available or sustainable) or over-licensed (the legal right exists to use more water than available or sustainable). This means agriculture and other water-dependent sectors have little flexibility to respond to growing water risks posed by climate change and population expansion.

Reforms to the abstraction licensing regime in England and Wales were originally proposed by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) nearly ten years ago. The proposals included changes to the link abstraction limits that are directly to available supplies of water in a given year; the removal of exemptions on the need for abstraction licenses for some users; and greater flexibility to promote sharing or trading of water. Yet, to date, almost none of these have been implemented in either policy or practice.

Our international research in places such as North America has shown that flexible abstraction rules and arrangements for sharing water, including trading systems, can significantly enhance farmers’ ability to manage drought risks and adapt to changing climate conditions. Such measures also ensure farmers have the confidence to invest in other productivity-enhancing practices, safe in the knowledge that their crops and income are protected against drought.

For the agricultural sector, delays to abstraction licensing reform continue to represent a significant missed opportunity for supporting climate adaptation. Implementing these reforms should be an urgent priority for government. One opportunity is through moves by Defra to modernise regulation of water use as part of the government’s 25 Year Environment Plan which, if successful, would go some way to enhancing resilience to drought and address the aim to “make the most out of every drop” of water.

Strengthen drought safety nets for farms

Reforming abstraction licensing alone isn’t sufficient to eliminate water risks, especially as droughts get more extreme and demands for water grow. To strengthen the resilience of agriculture, additional support measures will also be required that reduce both the likelihood of water shortfalls and mitigate impacts on farmers, rural economies, and food supply chains when drought does occur.

One key priority should be greater investment in infrastructure for water storage, both in the form of on-farm and larger-scale multi-use reservoirs, and the use of nature-based solutions, such as restoring natural wetlands. While summer rainfall and river flows are projected to decline in coming decades, water availability in winter is expected to follow the opposite trend. Enhancing capacity to store excess water in winter could provide a buffer against summer droughts and shortfalls, while offering protection against flood risks.

Opportunities also exist to tackle growing water risks through improvements in water use efficiency on farms, homes and businesses, which can lower water demands and abstractions. However, regulators must remember that efficiency measures do not create ‘new water’. Evidence from other countries such as the United States, Spain, and Australia suggests that irrigation efficiency improvements, if implemented in isolation, may lead to minimal improvements in water availability and in some cases can even exacerbate water pressures. Hence, it is critical to ensure that efficiency measures are accompanied by robust and sustainable limits on abstraction that reflect available water resources.

Unlike many other countries, the UK currently has few financial mechanisms to support farmers to manage production risks caused by drought and other weather extremes. Insurance schemes that deliver pay-outs to farmers in the event of crop failure could provide a financial safety net for farmers, and can be designed in ways that strengthen rather than weaken environmental sustainability. However, government support is needed to stimulate growth of insurance products and services.

‘You can’t manage what you don’t measure’

An essential prerequisite for implementing these innovations in abstraction and drought risk management is data. Changes to water allocation policies to enable trading of licenses in drought years require data on where and how much water is used by farmers and other license holders to ensure abstraction limits aren’t exceeded. Similarly, design of fair, reliable insurance products requires data on farmers’ historical crop yields and the ability to monitor where losses occur to determine when to make pay-outs and to who.

Here, the UK faces many significant challenges. For most water licenses (particularly agricultural), data is rarely collected on actual rates of water use, and the data that is collected is often unreliable. A lack of objective data on cropping practices and yields can be a barrier to the development of more novel risk-management solutions, such as insurance and sustainability-linked financial incentives. In particular, lack of data and monitoring on agricultural land management practices represents a key constraint to implementation of the government’s plans to replace direct payments from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with sustainability-linked support to farmers through a new Environmental Land Management Schemes (ELMS) program.

Strengthening data on agricultural land and water management requires a multi-pronged approach. A reversal to cutbacks in environmental enforcement capabilities at Environment Agency level, combined with increased investment in monitoring infrastructure including water metering, are essential to ensure abstraction policies are enforced – not just words written on paper. At the same time, capacity must be built to exploit new technological solutions enabling innovation in monitoring and management of water use. Our group is leading pioneering research on the use of satellite data to monitor agricultural water use and productivity. These approaches not only help plug gaps in traditional in-situ monitoring networks, but also provide data that can be used to identify and reward improvements in farmers’ practices, in ways that strengthen water stewardship.

Policy recommendations

The agricultural sector needs a greater voice in debates around the allocation of scarce water resources, recognising the essential role of adequate and reliable supplies for the resilience of UK’s farms, rural economies and food supply chains.

Reforms to abstraction management rules and investments in new water infrastructure (originally proposed almost a decade ago), if implemented in practice, could provide farmers with greater flexibility to adapt to increasingly frequent and severe droughts.

Changes to abstraction management and farm support schemes must be accompanied by robust improvements in infrastructure and support for the data collection and monitoring of agricultural water use and productivity, which to date have been chronically underfunded and poorly prioritised.

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