Why new drought is more ominous than parched summers of 1976 and 1995

Why new drought is more ominous than parched summers of 1976 and 1995
Forty-six years ago, there were standpipes in the streets. Twenty-seven years ago, one city came to within seven days of running out of water. But this year’s shortage suggests something more foreboding, say experts

For six weeks in the parched summer of 1995, some 1,000 water tankers rolled into West Yorkshire every single day in the biggest ever peacetime mobilisation of lorries.

They carried water for a region that had almost completely run dry in that year’s searing conditions. So desperate did the situation become that people across the county were told to prepare for standpipes in the streets. Ministers were reported to have drawn up plans for the evacuation of Bradford – a city of some 300,000 people.

As large parts of England entered another official drought on Friday, some may take comfort in the thought the country has been here before. Regularly, in fact. Water shortages were experienced in the UK in 1995 but also in 1976, 2003 and, to a lesser extent, 2012.

Except, say experts, what we are now going through in 2022 appears to signal something much more ominous than what has gone before.

“Personally, I’m not a fan of attributing any single event to climate change, especially a UK drought, because we have always had periods of low rainfall,” says Dr Barnaby Dobson, research associate in water systems at Imperial College London. “But what we now have is multiple models showing that, if carbon emission trajectories continue as they are doing, then droughts like this will become much more likely and they will become much more frequent.”

What is happening this summer is presently considered a roughly one-in-10-years event, and is essentially manageable, albeit with hardship.

“But, if the modelling is right – and there is widespread agreement it is – we are potentially looking at this becoming a one-in-five-years event relatively quickly,” says Dobson. “And that begins to cause far more problems in terms of everything from, you know, growing crops to maintaining drinking supplies.”

Dr Gemma Coxon, senior lecturer in hydrology at the University of Bristol, agrees. “This won’t be every summer,” she says. “But all the projections show that we are going to get more summers like it. This is the shape of things to come.”

Both the 1976 and 1995 droughts were, it’s worth stressing, far more extreme than what we are (up to this point) currently going through.

Two dry summers and a dry winter meant that 46 years ago was especially brutal: millions of pounds worth of crops failed while standpipes had to be installed in cities across the country. A minister of drought, Dennis (later Lord) Howell, famously told reporters he had started preserving water by taking baths with his wife. A plan was briefly mooted to seed clouds with rain-bursting chemicals.

<p>Rivers across parts of England are running dry </p>

Rivers across parts of England are running dry

Although 1995 was more localised, it caused its own considerable issues. In the worst affected area, West Yorkshire, rain levels fell so low that old hamlets long-ago flooded to create reservoirs such as Scammonden Dam emerged, ghost-like, from the depths. Despite that mobilisation of 1,000 tankers to transport water into the region, Bradford came to within just seven days of running out completely.

In an infamous local news clip, a Yorkshire Water official was seen at a newly installed standpipe in the city giving demonstrations of how it would work. A furious pensioner approached. “Stick that standpipe up your arse,” she told him. Then, as today, people were apoplectic that huge amounts of leaks were still wasting water while people were being told not to bath.

While the same level of disruption is not expected this summer, that partially disguises the seriousness of what is happening, experts say.

Water companies may still lose vast amounts of water through leaks – 635 million litres every day by Thames Water alone – but, largely, the network has become much more resilient in the intervening years. Part of the problem in Yorkshire in 1995, for example, was that, while the east of the county had full reservoirs, the pipes to move it west, where it was most needed, simply did not exist (as they do now).

“Counterfactuals are very difficult in this field but, in the same conditions today, you would almost certainly not meet the same problems because that distribution system is now in place,” says Dobson again. “The role of a good water supply is to essentially buffer any underlying environmental issues and to keep things running smoothly. But that can create its own issues in that it removes society from feeling the impact of those environmental changes – such as climate change.”

That is to say: because our infrastructure is reasonably good at protecting us against environmental fluctuations, it may also be misleading many of us into not viewing global warming as the threat it is. As Dobson suggests, if we had to have standpipes in our streets this summer, you can beat more people would be discussing the climate crisis.

<p>Parched fields and meadows in Finedon, Northamptonshire</p>

Parched fields and meadows in Finedon, Northamptonshire

All the same, as such droughts do become increasingly common, even the UK’s current resilience seems unlikely to be, well, resilient enough.

More ways of storing, recycling and even generating water will all be needed in the coming years – almost certainly at a cost of billions of pounds.

“Some of the UK utilities are thinking about things that we have in the Middle East like desalination plants,” says Tim Holloway, senior scientific officer with the University of Portsmouth and a specialist in water engineering systems. “This is where we are getting too.”

Among new initiatives being considered are larger reservoirs for greater storage and so-called greywater recycle systems built into new homes: essentially a pipe layout where your old bath water is stored to flush your toilet with.

Ironically, perhaps, creating better natural drainage to cope with floods would also be a huge help.

“After a period of low rainfall, the rain that comes tends to be very fast,” explains Holloway. “And, because the ground is very hard at that point, that rainwater can, firstly, cause flash flooding, and secondly, it runs straight off the land and into rivers and then the sea, so it doesn’t replenish supplies, which is clearly something it is now important to address.”

There is also the small matter of those leaks. Technology is currently being rolled out by water companies in a bid to identify and fix burst pipes and other waste areas with greater haste – but it is taking time.

“These are expensive and complex projects using public money,” says Holloway, who has worked with Southern Water on research and advisory projects. “So they have to be done right and with all due diligence.”

In the meantime, just like in 1976 and 1995, millions of people are now hoping for rain. Perhaps unlike 1976 and 1995, however, there may be millions also hoping for greater action on climate change.