Surviving droughts through better water management

min read time
2022-09-14 12:31:54

The UK has just survived its driest July since 1935, and despite facing an autumn blighted by flash flooding, dry conditions are predicted to last until October, with the number of drought zones increasing. Meanwhile, in Europe, vast swathes of the continent are battling through what meteorologists say could become the region’s worst drought in over 500 years.


Almost two months without significant rainfall have left Europe’s major water resources perilously low – over 100 villages in France are currently surviving without drinking water – while vital waterways like the Rhine are becoming impassable to river traffic. Wildlife, agriculture and communities are all suffering in this harsh environment, prompting local authorities to impose various water restrictions ranging from washing cars to preventing farmers from irrigating their crops.


Rethinking water restrictions

But do measures like hosepipe bans go far enough to safeguard biodiversity, crop production and human health? In short, no. Conditions creating the current drought have been building for months, with a dry winter followed by record-breaking summer temperatures. While temporary water restrictions may take the edge off drought conditions and keep at least a low level of water supply flowing, they’re insufficient to tackle droughts in the long term.

This deficiency is set to become more pronounced over the coming decades. As the effects of climate change intensify, we’re likely to see higher temperatures and increased evaporation, leading to more frequent and severe droughts. At the same time, heavier rainfall events will become more common. But because parched soil is typically unable to absorb such large quantities of water, these events will provide little relief, instead leading to runoff and flash flooding without alleviating drought conditions in the short term.


Fresh green sprout coming to life on cracked desert ground


Water scarcity worldwide

This isn’t just a problem for the UK and Europe. A recent UN report revealed that, globally, the number and duration of droughts has increased by almost a third in the past 20 years. It further predicted that over 75% of the world’s population could be affected by droughts by 2050. Despite being crucial to human life, water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource” (Martin Lambley, Territory Product Manager, Wavin).

Facing this level of existential threat, current restrictions simply won’t cut it. While hosepipe bans are important to address immediate shortages, longer-term measures would be more appropriate to ensure water scarcity doesn’t become a significant issue for communities in the coming decades.


Is integrated water management the solution?

Mitigating the consequences of severe droughts in the future needs to become a worldwide priority. It’s a complex problem, so the solution needs to be holistic, addressing various contributory factors. Ideally, a strategic approach like integrated water management will replace traditionally fragmented approaches to water management.

By coordinating all aspects of the water cycle including fresh water, wastewater, stormwater and natural systems in a strategic way, integrated water management can mitigate the risk of both flooding and water shortages. Encompassing both large and small-scale water reuse measures, it offers a scalable solution which can be embraced at a community level as well as regionally and nationally. With so many methods available, local initiatives right through to government departments are in a position to adopt various integrated water management strategies, thereby alleviating the downstream consequences that extremes in rainfall have for people, livestock and biodiversity.


Working with water’s up-down cycle

One of the key functions of integrated water management is water reuse. Addressing both flooding and shortage, water reuse seeks to work with “our up-down water cycle whereby reservoirs run low every summer, but we drain this water away in the winter” (Martin Lambley, Territory Product Manager, Wavin). By reusing water, drainage capacity issues are circumvented – reducing flooding and stormwater discharges - while also addressing shortages in useable water for communities.




The beauty of this approach is that it encompasses such a broad range of solutions – from maintenance of pipes that tend to leak in winter, to large-scale community SuDS schemes. Just some of the solutions that can be categorised under integrated water management, include:


Demand management:

  • Water efficient fixtures and fittings
  • Use of toilets with cyclonic flow to reduce water usage without loss of performance
  • Monitoring of usage to support behavioural responses e.g. smart meters
  • Network sensing including leak detection optimisation of water pressures for potable water transmission networks
  • Microclimate controlled irrigation to tailor irrigation requirements to different parts of the same site


Stormwater management:

  • Green roofs combined with roof water harvesting systems
  • Green source control including bio retention and manufactured soils, tree pits, rain gardens and thirsty concrete
  • Below ground storage including underground geocellular storage
  • Streetscape strategic SuDS networks
  • Modification of waterway storage and discharge
  • Downstream stormwater retention ponds or wetlands


Water recycling:

  • Building scale grey water recycling
  • Strategic scale wastewater recycling
  • Strategic scale stormwater recycling
  • Rainwater harvesting


The future of water management

Applicable to both new developments and retrofit, many integrated water management solutions can already be launched. Set to become a watchword across water utilities and development industries in the coming years, there are already a slew of regulations that look to water reuse to help solve the climate crisis.

Europe’s Water Reuse Regulation came into force in June 2020 and the new rules will apply across the EU from June 2023. The UK similarly has a long history of effective water reuse, but despite the Water Act 2014 - which seeks to increase the water industry’s resilience to natural hazards such as drought and floods - very little regulation demands greater water reuse. The British Standards for rainwater harvesting (BS85 15:2009) and greywater systems (BS8525-1:2010) provide practical guidance, but far more can be achieved for water reuse in the UK with the right regulatory guidance. 


Next steps

As images of Europe’s worst drought in living memory spread around the world, it’s important to ask how we got here and what can be done to mitigate the consequences of such a serious environmental event in the future.


lets fight floods


To find out more about safeguarding water supplies and protecting communities from both shortages and flooding, take a look at our climate resilent cities page.