Drought and water scarcity are significant threats to livelihoods and wellbeing in many countries, including the UK. Parts of the country are already water-stressed and are facing a wide range of pressures, including an expanding population and intensifying exploitation of increasingly limited water resources. In addition, many regions may become significantly drier in future due to environmental changes, all of which implies major challenges to water resource management. However, droughts are not simply natural hazards. There is also a range of socio-economic and regulatory factors that may influence the course of droughts, such as water consumption practices and abstraction licensing regimes. Consequently, if drought and water scarcity are to be better managed, there is a need for a more detailed understanding of the links between physical (i.e. meteorological, hydrological) and social and economic systems during droughts.

With this research gap in mind, the Historic Droughts project aims to develop an interdisciplinary understanding of drought from a range of different perspectives. Based on an analysis of information from a wide range of sectors (hydrometeorological, environmental, agricultural, regulatory, social and cultural), the project aims to characterise and quantify the history of drought and water scarcity since the late 19th century.

The project will deliver the first systematic account (the UK Drought Inventory) of past droughts in the UK. The Inventory will form the basis of a novel joint hydro-meteorological and socio-economic analysis that will lead to a ‘systems-based’ understanding of drought – i.e. an understanding of the multiple and interconnected drivers of drought, the impacts of drought and the feedbacks between them.

We expect this systems-based understanding to improve decision-making for future drought management and planning, and to facilitate more informed and thus effective public discourse related to drought.

In summary the key research outcomes will be:

  • a systems-based understanding of drought in the context of multiple environmental and societal drivers
  • an accessible, integrated cross-sector UK Drought Inventory
  • improved advice and methods to support decision making related to drought management
  • new strategies to re-frame public discourse related to drought