Don’t forget about drought

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With the 40th anniversary of the notorious (or glorious?) summer of 1976 UK drought looming, Climate Outreach is about halfway through a major four year partnership with a cluster of UK universities led by Prof Lindsey McEwen at UWE, called ‘Drought Risk and You’ (DRY).

The project is researching how science and storytelling approaches can integrate in drought decision-making. It combines small-scale experiments simulating drought conditions for grassland and various crops, rainfall and climatic modelling work on different river catchments, and a whole suite of innovative public and stakeholder research and engagement activities.

Some members of the team have been talking to stakeholders from a range of sectors from around the country – from water companies, to tourism operators, to environmental regulators. Others have been capturing recollections, narratives and experiences, with the aim of combining these ‘stories’ with the ‘science’ to create a new type of decision-making tool for dealing with drought risks in a changing climate.

But what’s striking is the relative invisibility of the issue, even for people (like gardeners) who have an obvious relationship with rainfall and water availability. In some cases, the project team has encountered outright opposition to talking about drought risks, in a decade that has so far been defined by serious flooding.

One set of analyses has focused on how companies in the FTSE100 are reporting water use. While there has been a year on year increase on how companies are prepared for climate risk, the majority of companies do not believe that water scarcity issues merit detailed discussion in their annual reports.

In Sheffield – close to the epicentre of recent flooding – there has been some strongly-worded opposition to talking about drought risks, when so many people have suffered from a water extreme of the opposite kind. In Scotland – also hit hard by flooding this winter – a group of local businesses were clear that too much (not too little) water was the problem they faced.

Like the idea of a prolonged cold snap during ‘global warming’, the notion of a drought when flooding is fresh in people’s memories is a difficult sell. Even though droughts and floods are just two points on a watery continuum, they feel like polar opposites in the public mind: we can’t have both at the same time. But with climate change, we can – and we will.

At Climate Outreach, we’ve written about the pervasive social silence that surrounds climate change. The antagonism towards taking drought risks on board feels like another layer within this broad trend: no-one wants to talk about droughts when flooding has dominated the headlines. But drought is as much a feature of a changing climate as flooded homes, fields and businesses.

In the same way that ocean acidification is the ‘evil twin’ of climate change (both are caused by ballooning levels of CO2), drought impacts are currently getting trounced by the risks of flooding in the public mind. But drought risks won’t go away just because we ignore them. And a central aim of the DRY project is to reframe how drought risks are approached by a range of organisations, businesses and the wider public, by unearthing, relaying and amplifying drought stories that can better resonate with a wider audience.

It is striking that some of the people who have been most willing to talk to the project team about drought risks are local historians, or archivists, who can tell rich stories of historic droughts that bring the risks to life. Somehow, this retrospective richness needs to be transplanted into the contemporary discourse on climate risks.

Our narratives about what climate change means for life in the UK need to find room for weather events that seem superficially contradictory. Floods are currently grabbing the headlines – and rightly so, as they have caused misery and destruction to thousands. But they are not the only climate impact in town – and we shouldn’t forget about drought.

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