UK Droughts & Water Scarcity

Dry riverbed

Droughts and water scarcity jointly pose a substantial threat to the environment, agriculture, infrastructure, society and culture in the UK, yet our ability to characterise and predict their occurrence, duration and intensity, as well as minimise their impacts, is often inadequate.

The UK Droughts & Water Scarcity research programme is a five-year interdisciplinary, £12 million+ NERC programme in collaboration with ESRC, EPSRC, BBSRC and AHRC. It will support improved decision-making in relation to droughts and water scarcity by providing research that identifies, predicts and responds to the interrelationships between their multiple drivers and impacts.

The programme's research will be UK-focused, and will contribute to NERC's natural hazards and climate system strategic science themes.

Five projects were funded under the UK Droughts & Water Scarcity programme:

About Drought Download

Closing date: 23 Nov

1 Oct 2019

Come along to the Royal Society, London to explore the final products from across the programme, including not only the progression of research on drought forecasting, monitoring, prediction, risk, impact assessment and communication, but also the numerous multidisciplinary resources, tools, and datasets that have been developed, and in many cases, rolled out to various sectors.

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Water is an essential, finite resource. Pressures on freshwater availability and security in the UK are increasing rapidly and pose mounting challenges for sustainable water management, particularly in southern England. Over-abstraction to meet the needs of growing populations, agricultural and industrial use, and the effects of climate change are causing multiple challenges in many water-stressed regions, and these are likely to increase.

With shifting frequency and patterns of rainfall and increasing demand for water (driven by agricultural and industrial needs, a growing population and individuals' use of more water-intensive goods and services), the effects of water shortages are becoming increasingly critical for the environment, food production, industrial efficiency and households.

Decision-making in risk-averse areas such as water supply requires high levels of confidence in forecasts. Yet we are currently unable to accurately predict the occurrence, duration and intensity of drought events. We also have a poor understanding of how these events are modulated by longer term climate and water management, as well as the factors affecting individual and community responses to such events, and the associated impacts.

At present, the drivers of drought and water scarcity, both meteorological (such as through anticyclonic blocking) and societal (for example supply and demand balance, water storage, transfer and utility trends), are considered in isolation. This means we lack knowledge about how they jointly influence the behaviour of complex hydrological, ecological, agricultural, social, cultural and economic systems. We are thus unable to effectively calculate the costs associated with stressing these systems, and it is difficult to make informed management decisions about trade-offs between competing demands.

The objective of the programme is to support improved decision-making and the identification of new and improved solutions in relation to droughts and water scarcity by providing research. This will enable users to identify, predict and respond to drought events, and to understand the interrelationships between their multiple drivers and impacts.

This initiative aims to help meet these knowledge needs though investment in collaborative, interdisciplinary research and stakeholder engagement (in co-design, production and delivery).

The programme's research will be UK-focused, and will address the following scientific goals:

  1. Characterise the drivers and nature of droughts and water scarcity, including the environmental, social and cultural factors that influence their occurrence, severity and impact.
  2. Examine the multiple and inter-linked impacts of UK droughts and water scarcity on the environment, agriculture, infrastructure, society and culture, and the trade-offs between them.
  3. Develop methods to support decision-making for drought and water scarcity planning and management, and to assess opportunities (including community and public responses) to reduce their occurrence and severity.

The programme will adopt an end-to-end systems-based approach. This acknowledges firstly the interdisciplinary nature of the research goals, and secondly the need to take an interdisciplinary approach to understanding the interactions between the multiple drivers and impacts of droughts, as well as the tools that can be developed to cope with and mitigate extreme drought events.

The programme is part of the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) and Global Food Security (GFS) initiatives.


2013 - 2018

Can I apply for a grant?

No, this call is now closed.


The programme budget of £12 million+ is divided between five projects (detailed above) with a further workstream on knowledge exchange activities. The programme is inter-disciplinary and is a collaboration between NERC and the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link

The programme is managed through a distributed Programme Coordination Team, consisting of the principal investigator (PI) of each of the funded projects, and a programme coordinator from each project representing different roles and aims of the programme.

Project PIs

  • Jamie Hannaford, Historic Droughts and ENDOWS
  • Dr Len Shaffrey, IMPETUS
  • Professor Jim Hall, MaRIUS
  • Professor Lindsey McEwen, DRY

Programme coordinators

PC role 1: Knowledge exchange and impact

Sally Stevens (University of Reading) working within IMPETUS:

  • to lead and promote the integration of knowledge exchange activities across the programme
  • to build strategically on these existing knowledge exchange activities (working with PCs 2-5 and the four PIs) to maximise impact.

PC role 2: Natural science integration within interdisciplinary contexts

Nevil Quinn (University of the West of England, Bristol) working within DRY team:

  • to ensure / exploit synergies where similar research is being carried out within similar disciplines across projects
  • to develop interdisciplinary working / events across projects building out from the natural sciences.

PC role 3: Social sciences and humanities / arts integration within interdisciplinary contexts

Helen Gavin (Oxford University) working within MaRIUS:

  • to ensure / exploit the synergies where similar research is being carried out within similar disciplines across projects
  • to develop interdisciplinary working / events across projects building out from the social sciences and the arts and humanities.

PC role 4: Data management and exploitation

Matt Fry and Isabella Tindall (CEH, Wallingford) working within Historic Droughts:

  • to lead the integrated data management (curation) across the programme to RCUK
  • to optimise creatively the exploitation of data and its use in longitudinal outreach across the programme.

PC role 5: Stakeholder Engagement

Lucy Ball (CEH, Wallingford) working within ENDOWS:

  • to ensure there is close liaison between the joint research organisations and partners across the DWS programme
  • to manage a focused programme integration, synthesis and knowledge exchange activities to maximise impact for a diverse range of stakeholders.