Table 2 shows the drought severity based on the 3-month SPI value for each month and the PSMDmax, for recent historical drought events for the Great Ouse catchment (Fig. 1), a large catchment where irrigation is concentrated, and where there is a high degree of water resource stress (EA 2008b). The period 1975–1976 is often remembered as being the most severe drought event in the UK. However, the period 1995–1997 was the driest on record in the south and east of England (EA 2012) when most months recorded an SPI value < 2 (extreme drought) and had the highest proportion of dry months over the period studied; whilst the highest PSMDmax value was attained during the 1988–1992 drought. As shown in Table 2, the Anglian region was also affected by several multi-year droughts which, although having a lower 3-month SPI value that the other drought events mentioned above, still had the potential for more severe impacts due to difficulties in winter reservoir filling or for the recharge of groundwater and/or river flow levels.
Farmers’ perception of drought and drought risk
Depending on the specific circumstances of each farm, the same drought could have very different types and level of impact between individual farmers. During the interviews, some respondents discussed what drought meant for their business, and defined it in differing ways:
“So, this whole thing is about distribution of rainfall patterns, isn’t it?”
“It appears that 1 year in 5 rainfall drops to 175 mm or below.”
“Water scarcity is wherever there is drought, and the other way around. One becomes the other. It is a risk to your business.”
“On this sort of [sandy] soil, the word drought is not always used that much because we have to manage water so actively anyway.”
Other farmers referred to drought as the situation when they face problems, mainly relating to the duration and timing of the drought event. For example, a period of three weeks without rain was considered by one farmer as a drought, whilst another farmer reported having water availability problems after 6 weeks with very low rainfall in May and June. Some farmers stated that the worst scenario was actually a dry summer following a dry winter, as water reserves would not be replenished and the risks of abstraction restriction were therefore much higher. These differences amongst farmers highlight the complexity of this natural hazard and how dependant their definition is on each farm’s specific circumstances.
Farmers were also asked to rate drought risk for their business on a scale from 0 (not important) to 10 (extremely important). For 18 survey respondents, drought risk was considered a very important business risk (8–10). Only two farmers did not consider drought to be an important risk (2) but, in both cases, they had sufficient licenced volume (and therefore sufficient headroomFootnote 3) to meet crop needs and had never suffered mandatory abstraction restrictions. Interestingly, they view drought as an opportunity rather than a risk with scope to benefit from their competitive advantage over rain-fed production systems and/or other irrigators.
Nearly half (46%) of the farmers surveyed believed that it was “highly likely” and a third (31%) “likely” that droughts would become more frequent in future. During the interviews, some farmers highlighted that any future increase in the frequency and severity of water availability problems not only would be related to weather patterns, but would also be due to an increase in water demand and/or from new water regulation that could reduce their licenced headroom.Footnote 4 Three interviewees believed that droughts were not likely to become more frequent in the future. They reported low–medium impacts during previous drought episodes and had not suffered mandatory abstraction restrictions.
Impacts of past drought events
Irrigation abstraction restrictions
We asked farmers whether they had been affected by abstraction restrictions imposed by the water regulatory agency (EA) during past drought events, and to indicate whether they were voluntary or mandatory partial restrictions, or total bans (Fig. 2a). Three quarters of survey respondents had been subject to some form of abstraction constraint during all previous drought events, but the analysis revealed a decreasing trend in the proportion of farmers being affected by mandatory bans and mandatory restrictions. Nine participants relied mostly on groundwater, which represented 75–100% of their total irrigation water availability; groundwater abstraction was reported to be seldom restricted by Section 57 regulations.
Farmer perceptions of past drought impacts
This research focused on the period from 1975–1976 onwards, as our main source of information was from farmer memories of past drought events. Almost a quarter (23%) of farmers surveyed did not answer the question regarding the impact of the 1976 drought on their production (Fig. 2b), although this proportion was similar to subsequent droughts. The remaining sample of farmers remembered the 1975–1976 droughts as having a medium or high impact on their crops. Since then, there was a generally positive trend in the proportion of farmers that categorised subsequent droughts as having either a low or no impact. This is despite there being little change in the frequency of abstraction restrictions (Fig. 2a) and in the severity of past drought events (Table 2), which could be a sign of the increasing resilience to droughts.
When reflecting on past experiences, it is also important to capture farmer sentiment and opinion on drought. Table 3 summarises the representative comments made by the interviewees about previous drought episodes; it should be recognised that these comments relate to a farm’s situation at that time, which may be very different now due to changes in water management. Nevertheless, based on these data, the irrigated sector and fresh produce supply chain were not well prepared for dealing with water shortages in 1976, leading to severe impacts in Anglian region. The droughts in 2003 and 2004–2006 were not remembered as being “high impact” events. In 2010–2012, although the severity of the drought was reported to be high, some farmers stated that they managed the situation effectively with limited impact. This narrative summarises the evolution of the impact and management of droughts in the region from a farmer perspective and is also useful to compare the comments made by farmers in relation to the 1976 and 2010–2012 droughts. Based on this evidence, farmers felt better prepared and organised in most recent drought episodes, highlighting the increase in resilience within the irrigated agriculture sector.
Drought management strategies
We can distinguish different types of drought management action based on the spatial scale and time frame. Spatially, the array of actions ranged from farm-scale responses to catchment-scale actions. In relation to timescale, we can differentiate between short-term coping strategies that adapt farm activities to water availability at a point in time within the drought and longer-term strategic business developments designed to manage future drought risks and increase resilience.
Short-term coping strategies (farm level)
During a drought, there are various on-farm strategies that could be applied in order to reduce the economic impact and help farm business to meet their contractual obligations (if any). Figure 3 shows the proportion of surveyed farmers using different strategies and Table 4 describes them in more detail, based on the comments during the interviews. These can be broadly classified into three groups: (1) strategies aimed at making best use of available water relative to their own water resource position and infrastructure constraints; (2) liaising with the water regulator (directly or indirectly) to either reduce the likelihood of abstraction restrictions and/or to obtain maximum warning and support from them; and (3) implementing additional coping strategies such as water trades or renegotiating existing contracts.
Growers normally applied a combination of strategies (Fig. 3) rather than relying on only one option. For instance, 17 of the 26 survey respondents used four or more strategies during a drought event. Farmers were also asked to identify their two most favoured strategies. They choose (1) working collectively through a local water abstractors group (WAG) to negotiate with the water regulator (EA) (n = 7) and (2) developing a drought management plan (n = 6) as being most relevant.
Evidence from the interviews suggests that the impact of drought on UK crop prices during and after a drought is not as high as it was a few decades ago due to the increased importance of international markets and a more vertically integrated and developed fresh produce supply chain. Consequently some irrigators in Anglian region enter into fixed-price forward contracts with supermarkets or processors at the beginning of the season to reduce their exposure to price volatility. In these cases, they stated that their decisions during a drought will be driven by prioritising contract commitments when deciding how to share a limited water resource amongst their crops. There may be significant financial penalties if they are unable meet their contractual obligations, and they could risk the renewal of the contract for the following season. For instance, a grower on very sandy soils who grew rain-fed cereals as part of their crop rotation in 2012 stated:
“we had to default on our forward contracts for cereals and it was very costly to buy ourselves out because the market went against us.”
Longer-term strategic planning
After being affected by past drought events, most participants made changes in their businesses to increase their resilience to future droughts. The main options undertaken were:
Development of a drought management plan to establish a protocol for the business in the event of drought (7%);
Investment in alternative water resources and more efficient irrigation infrastructure (43%). This includes long-term investments to secure water supply (e.g. reservoir construction, multiple abstraction sources, rainwater harvesting), on-farm distribution networks and switching to more efficient irrigation application technologies;
Modifying crop selection and planting programmes to grow more drought-tolerant or less water-intensive varieties (18%);
Other strategies (11%), like improving soil management to increase water retention, and adopting collective action through farmer associations such as abstractor groups or producer organisations.
A fifth (20%) of respondents reported they did not change their business management practices to cope with future droughts after the 2010–2012 events. This could be due to the fact that they were not adversely impacted by drought in the past. On the other hand, two-thirds of the farmers interviewed had subsequently invested in winter storage reservoirs to increase the reliability of their summer irrigation water supply (for one farmer, it was their main water source representing 80% of irrigation water on-farm); 20% had considered building a reservoir but had not yet made the investment decision. Another 20% were not considering water storage for different reasons (for example, one farmer believed reservoirs were not the preferred solution because if there was a drought and Section 57 restrictions were enforced there could be additional problems for reservoir filling). Although grants are available to support farm reservoir construction, the main barriers included the high investment cost and uncertainty in how often the reservoir will be used, thus impacting on the investment return.
Water regulatory agency drought management
The reduction in mandatory abstraction bans (Fig. 2a) is consistent with comments made by a number of farmers about how the water regulator has significantly changed its relationship with the agricultural community from being a “draconian” regulator to having a much more open, transparent and engaged attitude in recent years, with a stronger intent to avoid mandatory abstraction restrictions. Whilst some farmers still view the water regulator as “the police”, the EA has developed a much more proactive approach to communicating with farmers during a drought, through regular meetings, providing information on changing river and aquifer levels, and on prospects for irrigation for the forthcoming growing season. Collectively, these actions have allowed farmers to respond and adapt their management activities to changing water resource conditions with much greater confidence and enabled local water resource planners to work with farmers to provide them with greater flexibility to manage and minimise the drought impacts. The following quotations from farmers highlight these issues:
“Relations with the Agency have improved immeasurably over the last 15–20 years. They are much more ready to talk to abstractors, to discuss the problems, to try to reach solutions that enable them to fulfil the regulatory rules plus give as much flexibility to the abstractors as possible”.
“The EA … they gave us a lot of forward notification. They were forecasting about if we have average rainfall we will need to have this level of restriction…And that was extremely helpful. It gave us the ability to plan our risk…”
The water regulator has also acknowledged during the interviews the critical importance of changing its approach, focusing more on the dialogue with the farming community and the establishment of early lines of communication when a drought appears likely. For example, they now involve farmer representatives in discussions in order to facilitate agreement on voluntary reductions rather than impose mandatory ones later in the season. This approach was successful during the 2010–2012 drought (Fig. 2a) despite its severity (Table 2). Nevertheless, some farmers believe the water regulator should provide better information (e.g. abstraction restriction triggers), could engage more proactively with abstractors in identifying drought responses to balance the needs of agriculture with other users and the environment and should provide more robust evidence of the environmental impact of droughts and the resilience of aquatic ecosystems to justify their decision-making processes regarding implementation of abstraction restriction.