Extreme Drought

Could we cope with a Cape Town “Day Zero” situation?

In mid-April 2018, the WRSE held a 5-day residential “Sprint” in Oxford bringing together experts in the water industry including Anglian Water and Water UK. The purpose was to explore and understand the potential impact of an extreme drought and how to manage it. An extreme drought is one beyond Temporary Use Bans, drought permits and orders, where extreme water shortages are in place.

The group comprised up to 15 participants sharing their different expertise, with guest visits from experts in other sectors.  The potential lead time into an extreme drought isn’t as long as we think:  we are as little as 18 months away from an extreme drought, which can occur after 2 years of below average rainfall.

The consequences of an extreme drought – the country running out of water – would be profound with serious ramifications for the UK, for people, industry, health, environment, government and the economy.   It would impact on all aspects of life on a massive scale with potential irreparable economic and societal damage. The impacts to the south east of England would be particularly damaging.  One visiting expert raised the real threat of cholera returning to UK; another raised awareness of the water needed for animals and crops in food production; another mentioned the social unrest that might occur. Water quality issues will be significant and aquatic ecosystems may be devastated.

A major realisation from the workshop was the fact that the lead time into an extreme drought isn’t as long as we think – we are as little as 18 months away from an extreme drought, following 2 years of below average rainfall.  A key recommendation from the Sprint was therefore to formalise a regional approach to managing an extreme drought situation, to better balance the needs of various stakeholder groups, and ensure that risks are adequately invested against and balanced across the area.  Further it was agreed that all must undertake the necessary pre-planning on a regional strategic level to try and avoiding the impacts of extreme drought as much as possible. We all need to recognise the utility of water not focus attention solely on water utilities.

Below is a summary of the issues raised and discussed during the workshop, and also here.

The WRSE Extreme Drought Working group

In order to move things forward, an Extreme Drought Group has been established withing the WRSE. The goal of the group is to produce a regional drought plan to manage extreme drought when it occurs.

The group will continue to work to develop the framework initiated in the Sprint workshop, to show how a regional executive group can manage an extreme drought using greater leakage reductions, additional intra and inter-company transfers, greater abstractions from the environment, incentivising lower levels of consumption, temporary treatment, use of alternative supplies, use of non-potable water, metering and the use of drought plans and drought orders.  Current guidance will be examined to identify and resolve legislative clashes.

Findings from the WRSE Extreme Drought working Group 
An extreme drought will have serious ramifications for the UK, for its people, industry, health, environment, government and the economy.   The effects of an extreme drought – the country running out of water – will impact all aspects of life with potential irreparable economic and societal damage. The impact on the east, and south east of England would be significant due to the number of people in this part of the country.

An Extreme Drought represents the most acute form of water shortage that we could face, and would arise after three winters of sub-average rainfall. Not acting to prevent would this lead to rationing water, cutting off home and businesses, to preserve what little water we have for critical or priority users or uses.

Given the creeping nature of a developing drought, we might only realise we face extreme drought conditions with only 18 months from a Cape Town ‘Day Zero’ situation.

We argue that the resilience of the UK to extreme droughts should be based upon the true value of water to society or the economy, not by single water company customers’ willingness to pay

Drought is a different type of emergency to floods and attacks: it can take a long time to get to a critical position, and there is always the possibility of rainfall replenishing reserves, pushing back ‘Day Zero’. An extreme drought will affect everyone and everything we do: water is fundamental to human health and prosperity, and used in all aspects of life from hospitals to food production.

Where: red lines show how any economic impact could manifest; black lines indicate households; blue lines show businesses; yellow lines are government; and green lines are environment impacts www.mariusdroughtproject.org

Here are just some potential  impacts:

  • Severe impact on society and the economy with potential civil unrest
  • All businesses need water, either directly or indirectly: extreme droughts will lead to job losses
  • Schools will likely shut down, causing knock-on effects
  • Much infrastructure is directly depending on a certain water volume or quality: electricity generation needs water as does server cooling and transport services
  • Loss of power through outages caused by drought will affect society massively through loss of electricity, loss of connectively and internet, and
  • Water quality issues will be significant with additional treatment, equipment or investment needed to maintain wholesome supplies
  • Extreme Drought could result in a wave of health-related crises, with the potential emergence of long-banished diseases, such as cholera
  • Farm animals and crop production will be critically affected
  • Natural ecosystems, particularly aquatic habitats, but also animal parks and zoos will suffer
  • The supply chain may not be able to cope e.g. bottled water suppliers, tanker hire companies
  • Many legislative clashes would arise which will confound the ability to help people.

How prepared are we now? 

Every water company plans to be resilient to water shortages – up to a severe drought such as that which would occur after two dry winters – and can restrict the use of water for certain uses via Temporary Use Bands and Non-Essential Use bans.

The three statutory documents which reference droughts, produced by water companies only are the Drought Plan, the WRMP, and the SEMD plan.  Under an Extreme Drought scenario, problems emerge as company drought plans are not integrated regionally, and current legislative requirements mean that WRMPs and Drought Plans only plan for a certain range of droughts, not all. These droughts vary between water companies and therefore the level of resilience  is also different.  Finally, SEMD plans do not currently cover extreme droughts.

Water companies are currently not permitted to plan for Extreme Droughts

For the south east of England and Anglian region, implementing Cape Town-esque restrictions may not be sufficient to prevent supply failure. The Extreme Drought in Cape Town affected 3 million people: there are over 22 million people in south east England and Anglian.

 We need to plan for Extreme Drought now, and adopt a regional approach as this will better balance different stakeholder needs, and ensure risks are adequately addressed and balanced across the area.


What type of water restrictions would we face during Extreme Drought?

In the past rota cuts and standpipes have been used: are such restrictions acceptable today to people, society and the economy?

In Extreme Drought we face shutting down water supply to businesses, leisure facilities, industry and infrastructure, with the consequential potentially catastrophic impact on the economy and society that we have seen recently in Cape Town, South Africa, California and Australia.

Dealing with the challenges of extreme drought should not be confined to water companies: everyone and every sector of society has a role to prevent and minimise water shortages.  We must all recognise the value of water and integrate water efficiency into everyday life.

What are we doing?

We will learn from other droughts in the UK and worldwide, and take Australia’s advice to be prepared for the occurrence of extreme drought before it happens.  We picked up the National Drought Group’s Exercise Arica recommendations to define and implement regional measures.

Over 50 actions and recommendations were identified at the workshop. We have prioritised these into 9 key workstreams and are working on the actions:

  • Develop cross sector deep dive assessment of extreme drought
  • Create an extreme drought plan/framework for the region
  • Develop/build on relationships with key stakeholders, identifying roles and responsibilities and gaining their buy-in to the extreme drought framework
  • Investigate and provide guidance on how to resolve legislative clashes which would affect operations during an extreme drought.
  • Establish guiding principles for supply chain management and operational considerations during an extreme drought.
  • Identify known and potential water quality risks and determine mitigation measures.
  • Include extreme drought requirement in SEMD or new standard specifically for emergency drought measures.
  • Identification and prioritisation of priority/vulnerable customers.
  • Secure commitment from stakeholders to provide consistent information to the public – effecting a change in culture to ensure water conservation is seen as essential, not discretionary.

We will create a Regional Extreme Drought Plan to ensure resilience during an Extreme Drought when it occurs.  This Plan will detail how the region will manage such an event, with cooperation from stakeholders, the water companies and regulators in the area.

Our proposed Regional Drought management structure during Extreme Droughts events: