Droughts could cost farmers £2bn by 2050 – what are they going to do about it?

It may not be a surprise to learn that farmers in the UK are severely affected by drought. However, many people don’t realise the true extent of the devastating effects that dry periods can have on the agriculture industry.

With droughts predicted to become even more common in years to come, Harvey Water Softeners has conducted a study into why droughts occur, how they affect farmers, and what the agriculture sector is planning to do to mitigate this projected £2 billion loss by 2050.

According to Tallaksen and van Lanen – authors of the book ‘Hydrological Drought: Processes and Estimation Methods for Streamflow and Groundwater Developments in Water Science’ – drought is a “sustained and regionally extensive occurrence of below average (ground) water availability”, and is related to significant precipitation deficits.

Around one-third of all the water used in England and Wales comes from groundwater, compared to just seven per cent in Northern Ireland and three per cent in Scotland. However, some areas of each country are more reliant than others on groundwater. The South East of England, for example, is very reliant on groundwater reserves, where 70 per cent of its total water supply comes from.

At the moment, the UK has just enough groundwater to satisfy demand. However, with environmental changes brought on by global warming making droughts more likely in the future, the dangers to the whole of the UK are all too clear.

Let’s see the effect it can have on farmers.

The drought of 1976 is seen as one of the worst the British Isles has ever faced, with £500 million worth of crops failing in that year. Adjusting this with the rate of inflation, this today equates to £3.5 billion.

A report by James Dodds for Groundwater UK stated that if farmers are unable to irrigate their lands, it could threaten up to 90 per cent of agricultural output. In turn, this could reduce the income to farmers by over four-fifths – a huge amount.

In the long term, the potential impacts to the farming sector are huge. Given that analysts claim that by 2050 there could be Public Water Supply deficits across the whole of the UK, droughts could also cost the UK agriculture industry more than £2 billion.

However, it is not all doom and gloom.

Thankfully, there are some measures farmers can take to help lessen the finance-crippling nature of drought. In fact, if farmers can successfully defend themselves against it, they could shave 15 per cent off the predicted losses of £2 billion.

The National Farmers Union and Country, Land & Business Association have put together detailed guidelines on lessons learned from past incidents. They include:

A fair share of water for farming and food production

Government-funded research into current levels of water resilience in farming and where they need to be in the short and long-term
A minimum level of water service for farming, in a similar fashion to existing measures for public water supply
Demands to be consulted much earlier by water companies when they are creating plans and strategies for drought

Improved water security

Continued development of on-farm storage, and more reservoirs to be built
Encouragement of farmers to significantly invest in secure water supplies to safeguard their future
Grants, tax incentives and other support to boost farmer investment in water
Reduction of red tape during reservoir applications

Risk management

Development of new skills and access to information to help farmers calculate and manage risk more effectively

Water trading

Better processes so that farmers can trade water with other users and water companies

Knowledge transfer

Creation of a knowledge base or website so that everyone that works in the agri-food sector can adhere to the best water management practices

Local water resource groups

Provision of help and support to create new local water resource groups

Collaboration in food and farming sector

Bringing the two sectors closer together to better understand the water footprint caused by food production

Speaking of the need to be fully-prepared for future droughts, Paul Hammett – national specialist on water resources for the National Farmers Union (NFU) – said: “Climate change predictions suggest that farmers will face floods and droughts of increasing frequency and intensity in the future. Their challenge will be to grow more food while grappling with the dual challenges of both too much, and not enough, water on farms. We need to give farmers the tools and the confidence to invest in the face of an uncertain future climate – and we need government policies to ensure that farmers are allocated a fair share of water to grow our food.

“The main lesson learned from the 2010-12 drought was that we need more storage to capture water when it is plentiful – reservoirs are seen by our members as the single most important means of improving water security. We need fiscal support and less red tape when building on-farm water storage. For example, tax breaks for on-farm reservoir construction will deliver the growth that the chancellor so desperately wants to see and make our food production more resilient.”

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