Responding to potential water shortages

Responding to potential water shortages

Friday, November 5, 2010

Adaptation across the whole industry is needed to meet the impending challenge of water shortages in the coming decades, as a result of climate change, concludes an RASE report.

The report was commissioned by the Royal Agricultural Society of England and carried out by scientists from the Walker Institute for Climate System Research and the School of Agriculture, Policy & Development, both at the University of Reading.

Water for Agriculture - Implications for Future Policy & Practice, makes it clear that higher temperatures and lower rainfall in summer are likely to reduce river flow and reduce the amount of water available for agriculture. 

"This is a challenge for plant breeders, policy makers and planners as well as farmers," said Ian Smith, Agri-Science Director of RASE. "Plant breeders will need to incorporate drought resistance and waterlogging tolerance into new varieties; water policy will have to reflect the need to conserve and perhaps even redistribute water from wetter to drier areas and planners must be flexible in allowing farms to build reservoirs so that they can conserve winter rainfall for summer irrigation."

"For a long time, water management in the UK has concentrated on getting water off land and into rivers and drains and then into the sea. Perhaps we need to rethink some of these strategies and divert more of that water into storage for later use".

"Climate change is expected to produce higher temperatures, drier summers and wetter winters across much of England," says Dr Alison Bailey, an author of the report, from the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development. "This is likely to mean reduced river flow and less water available for agriculture. We found reductions in river flow of around 20% by the 2020s and 40% by the 2050s, although there was considerable uncertainty and results varied across the country."

The report recognises the need for further research into the water implications of climate change on UK food production and goes on to recommend key messages and areas of work.

These include:

  • a need to focus on managing both water demand and supply
  • ways of reducing demand and focusing production on enterprises which use water more efficiently or move some enterprises to areas where water is more readily available
  • the potential to move water from areas where there are fewer requirements to areas with higher demand
  • better use of excess winter rainfall and flood water through capture and storage
  • feasibility of water re-use and what is acceptable to the consumer
  • emphasis in plant breeding programmes on drought and water-logging resistance
  • revising crop protection policy for new weed, pest and disease pressures
  • adapting the management of grassland systems, including the introduction/increase of alternative forages within the diet
  • investment in livestock housing, feed (conserved crops) and manure storage
  • focusing on more efficient use of water for the washing of plant and machinery, particularly within dairy enterprises, through knowledge transfer initiatives regarding opportunities to capture excess winter waters
  • improving irrigation techniques and research into producing crops with less demand for water focusing on drought resistance and improving quality traits without water use
  • adoption of flood risk contingency plans on farms
  • land management which reduces flood risk through reducing runoff and increasing infiltration
  • investment in landscape features, such as hedges, ditches and ponds, to reduce flood risk
  • improvements to existing drainage systems, with recognition that in some areas reverting to natural floodplains may be more appropriate.

See the full report at



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