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Science Museum, Met Office and Defra host water summit

As Britain lurches from flood to drought, even the most hardened climate sceptic would have to admit that our relationship with that most fundamental ingredient of life – water – is undergoing a profound change.

On 28th February, key individuals from Government, industry, academia and consumer bodies met to discuss the major issues facing water use in a meeting organised with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Met Office at the Science Museum.

In opening remarks, the chairman of the Environment Agency Lord Smith said that to become sustainable the country needed to improve water resilience – the balance of demands from homes, industry, agriculture and the need to protect ecosystems – and achieve a reduction in average demand from the current level of around 150 litres per person per day to around 130. The country must also continue to improve flood resilience: in the past 10 months, 8000 properties in England and Wales flooded but 200,000 were protected by defences built over the prior 30 years.

Finally, he said that the nation needs to get more adept at planning for uncertainty.

Chaired by Ian Blatchford, Director of the Science Museum, five key themes emerged from the round table discussion:

1) Our relationship with water has altered. Long term environmental trends that result from climate change mean that although average annual rainfall is roughly the same, the intensity and variability have increased. There are other pressures on the water supply, caused by the continued reliance on Victorian sewers, demographic trends and the resulting impact of construction, such as covering tracts of land with paving.

2) Science is critical. We require cutting edge science to understand issues ranging from climate change to the behaviour of surface water, which recently leapfrogged rivers as the primary flooding threat, when most warning systems are calibrated by river behaviour. However, much of this science is hedged in uncertainties – such as the limitations of medium range forecasting – and there are huge challenges in conveying them to the public.

3) Collaboration. To deal with the change in Britain’s water, collaborations need to come in different domains: between industry and universities in centres of excellence; multi-agency partnerships of the kind already working successfully between the Environment Agency and Met Office in flood warning; and between the water industry and local communities and councils on local solutions, such as reliance on wetland areas to absorb floodwaters. This relationship has to be a partnership, not paternalistic. These collaborations will not always need to bring about innovation but simply bring things together better. There are also issues finding funding support for applied science. Research councils tend to focus on strategic science and water companies tend to focus on practical research. Examples of collaborations between water industry leaders and universities are emerging, though more are desirable. The UK could also learn from the experience of countries such as Australia, where there is expertise in drought management.

4) Communication. Water is crucial for existence and yet, paradoxically, the consumer needs a better understanding of the role it plays in everyday life, through a more obvious link between the cost, value and uses of water. One challenge is encouraging a community take action in advance of a drought, in preemptive measures that can delay the need for draconian measures, rather than in reactive measures when supplies run short. There are technologies, such as telemetry, which can provide more rapid warning to communities of flood risks, and smart meters, which are more engaging. Another communication issue is to both understand the way consumers respond, whether to warnings or tariffs, and to find the best way for institutions to earn their trust. Finally, the UK is a world leader in many areas and, rather than continuing to do brilliant work modestly, it should be bolder in conveying its successes to the public and globally, since water resources are a planetary issue.

5) Skills. Understanding of the behaviour of local water has moved away from local authorities and, as emphasised in point 3) this has to be re-established in new collaborations, which are more focused on catchment areas than political boundaries. Another issue is maintaining the experience of ‘flood veterans’ who have dealt with earlier emergencies, such as the 2007 floods that triggered Sir Michael Pitt’s review.

Roger Highfield is the Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum Group.