The wrong kind of rain: why Britain is not as wet as we think

Climate change is bringing ever more extreme weather to Britain. While storms and floods make dramatic headlines, summer heatwaves and droughts threaten to bring severe seasonal water shortages within our lifetimes.

By National Geographic
Published 26 May 2021, 18:01 BST
Keeping the UK’s rivers running

A running tap, a trickling toilet, a sprinkler left on overnight. We may think that wasting water shouldn’t matter in Britain because the one thing we have plenty of is rain. So why are the Environment Agency and water companies so worried about our water supply that they are actively encouraging us to use less water—a lot less? It turns out that while Britain seems to have more wet days than many of us would like, it’s the wrong kind of rain: too much, too quickly in winter―and then too little stretched over a long, hot summer. Climate change is driving our seasonal disparity to dangerous extremes so that we increasingly veer between contrasting crises of overwhelming winter floods and devastating summer droughts. This is cause for concern as two recent severe weather events show: the record-breaking drought of 2018 and floods of 2020. 

Spring 2018 was typically wet, but within a few months the country was gasping for rain. Summer temperatures hit near-record breaking highs, and with soaring temperatures came drought. Across Britain, it was one of the driest May-to-July periods ever, and for regions like East Anglia, it was the second driest on record, resulting in toxic algae blooms to the Norfolk Broads and threatening to dry up the region’s iconic chalk streams. With the UK getting only about half its expected summer rainfall, water resources deteriorated rapidly. Major rivers in England, Scotland, and Wales hit record lows, and reservoir levels dropped significantly.

This brought fears for the domestic water supply as a thirsty nation turned on the taps to keep cool. While some water authorities were boosting supplies by an extra 87 million litres a day, consumers in some regions were drawing an extra half a billion litres: water restrictions in England were only narrowly averted. Soils dried out, damaging crops; drowned villages emerged from reservoirs; and the outlines of long-lost buildings appeared on the landscape like invisible ink. Seen from space, the country literally changed colour from green to brown: it was the UK’s longest drought in more than 40 years.

Yellow fields of crops in Luton: 2018’s summer drought turned Britain’s rolling green countryside a yellowish ...

Yellow fields of crops in Luton: 2018’s summer drought turned Britain’s rolling green countryside a yellowish brown.

Photograph by Shutterstock

A little over 18 months later and the UK was suffering from too much water. ‘This is not normal flooding,’ declared the Environment Agency in February 2020, as three storms dumped double the average monthly rainfall on Britain. Soon, major rivers were recording their highest levels ever, and barriers buckled under the intense weight of water that coursed through flood defences at 500 tons per second. Homes were evacuated and thousands of properties flooded as the Environment Agency issued nearly 600 flood alerts and warnings―a record number. It was the UK’s wettest February, and its fourth wettest month in more than 100 years, but such record-breaking winter rains are projected to become more common.

Climate change means storms are becoming noticeably more frequent and intense. What’s more, as the UK warms, milder winters mean less snow and heavier rain; the change is important because snow melts slowly and releases water steadily, but prolonged periods of intense rain overwhelm rivers and cause floods. In the last 20 years, severe flooding has become more common in Britain, but February 2020 was one of the worst. The tragedy, perhaps, is that we are not able to channel, capture, and keep that excess water—because our summers are getting drier.

Flooding in Castleford, Leeds: Climate change is resulting in downpour events that are too intense to ...

Flooding in Castleford, Leeds: Climate change is resulting in downpour events that are too intense to be captured and put to good use.

Photograph by Shutterstock

From too little rain to too much rain, at the heart of the paradox is climate change. Record-breaking temperatures are less surprising when we consider that the average temperature is already one degree Celsius higher than pre-industrial times. Higher temperatures increase evaporation, drying out the land. But a warmer atmosphere also holds more moisture, increasing the volume of rainfall. The results are floods and droughts. Climate change projections are that while the UK will continue to get wetter in winter, it will become hotter and drier in summer. The 2018 drought is set to be the new normal for UK summers, and that means we will have to get used to having less water when we need it most.

To counter the impact of drought caused by climate change, by 2050 the UK could need to find an extra four billion litres of water every day. Government policy is to reduce the amount of water used so that less needs to be taken from dwindling aquifers, lakes, and rivers; water authorities are working to reduce the 20 percent of water lost to leaks; manufacturers are making more water-efficient products and processes. With healthy water systems recognized as crucial to sustaining our freshwater supply, organizations such as WWF are taking positive action to replenish and maintain the natural balance of our country’s rivers and wetlands. Global dishwasher brand, Finish, is also playing its part by partnering with WWF to replenish some of the UK’s most crucial natural water systems. Focusing on East Anglia, one of our most precious areas for natural waterways, their projects will focus on improving water quality, constructing new wetlands, re-wetting reedbeds, reinstating modified rivers and streams, as well as restoring bogs and mires. Over the next three years, Finish and WWF will work together to replenish 500 million litres of the UK’s freshwater.

At home, we can all help to make a difference by using much less water. We each currently use around 143 litres every day, but based on future projections of water availability, the Environment Agency suggests we need to use less than 100 litres. Fortunately, this is not as hard as it sounds because many small changes make a big difference. Fixing household leaks quickly, swapping baths for shorter showers, turning off the tap when brushing teeth or rinsing vegetables, and resisting the urge to water yellowing lawns will save huge amounts of water. Simply using a dishwasher instead of handwashing dishes in the sink will save nearly 7,000 litres of water a year, and not pre-rinsing the dishes before loading the dishwasher will save another 1,000 litres. These are important water-saving habits to take up because water shortages are coming: despite the rain, we don’t have as much water as we think.

Learn more about the initiative. 

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