MaRIUS: Managing the Risks, Impacts and Uncertainties of droughts and water Scarcity

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Geographical Sciences


Impacts of water scarcity on the environment, society and the economy are complex. They are profoundly shaped by human choices and trade-offs between competing claims to water. Current practices for management of droughts in the UK have largely evolved from experience. Each drought tests institutions and society in distinctive ways. Yet it is questionable whether this empirical and heuristic approach is fit for purpose in the future, because the past is an incomplete guide to future conditions.

The MaRIUS project will introduce and explore a risk-based approach to the management of droughts and water scarcity, drawing upon global experiences and insights from other hazards to society and the environment. MaRIUS will demonstrate, in the context of real case studies and future scenarios, how risk metrics can be used to inform management decisions and societal preparedness. Enquiry will take place at a range of different scales, from households and farms to river basins and national scales. Fine-scale granular analysis is essential for understanding drought impacts. Aggregation to broader scales provides evidence to inform critical decisions in water companies, national governments and agencies. Analysis on a range of timescales will demonstrate the interactions between long-term planning and short-term decision making, and the difference this makes to impacts and risks.

Underpinning the risk-based approach to management of water scarcity, the MaRIUS project will develop an integrated suite of models of drought processes and impacts of water scarcity. A new 'event set' of past and possible future hydroclimatic drought conditions will enable extensive testing of drought scenarios. The representation of drought processes in hydrological models at catchment and national scales will be enhanced, enabling improved analysis of drought frequency, duration and severity. Models for assessment of the risks of harmful water quality, in rivers and reservoirs, will be developed. The representation of drought impacts in models of species abundance and biodiversity in rivers and wetland ecosystems, such as fens, lowland and upland bogs, will be enhanced. A model of agricultural practices and output will be used to analyse drought impacts on agriculture and investigate the benefits of preparatory steps that may be taken by farmers. The potential economic losses due to water scarcity will be analysed through a combination of 'bottom-up' study of households and businesses, and consideration of supply chain dependence on drought-sensitive industries.

The environmental, economic and social dimensions of water scarcity will be synthesised into a computer visualisation tool (an 'impacts dashboard'). This will enable exploratory analysis of feedbacks between impacts. For example, agricultural land use changes, driven in part by drought frequency, will, in turn, influence water quality and ecosystems. The interdisciplinary analysis will enable comparison of likely outcomes arising from applying both pre-existing drought management arrangements (e.g. restrictions on water use, abstraction limits) and enhanced/innovative management strategies (e.g. use of outlook forecasts, dynamic tariffs).
Social science and stakeholder engagement are deeply embedded in the MaRIUS project, which will be framed by a critical analysis of how impacts of droughts and water scarcity are currently understood and managed by key stakeholders, and how this is shaped by institutions, regulation and markets. First-hand experience and 'collective memory' of communities affected now, and historically, by water scarcity will provide new understandings of the social and cultural dimensions of droughts. On-going engagement between the project social scientists, natural scientists and stakeholders will help to ensure that the outputs from the MaRIUS project, including the 'impacts dashboard', are matched to their needs and to the evolving policy context.

Planned Impact

Droughts are one of the headline strategic risks to the UK. In 2012 the UK experienced the driest spring in over a century, after two dry winters. Ministers faced the prospect of water shortages during the London Olympics. Whilst the drought conditions in early 2012 served as a wake-up call, the potential for water shortages in the UK, driven by changing patterns of demand and changing climatic conditions, had already been recognised. In the Thames Water region alone it is estimated that severe water rationing could potentially result in economic losses of £300million/day. The capacity for the natural environment to recover from periods of very low flows, deteriorated water quality, dry soils and hot temperatures is not well understood.

The MaRIUS project aims to provide new evidence and insights to minimise and manage the harmful impacts of droughts and water scarcity to the environment, society and the economy. It will provide benefits through the improved management of risks and more inclusive, transparent, effective and efficient arrangements for risk management.

The expected beneficiaries are:

1. Organisations with responsibility for the management of droughts and water scarcity, who will benefit from improved evidence of the risks of droughts and potential impacts of water scarcity. These organisations include water utilities, regulators (EA, Ofwat) and government (Defra and the devolved administrations). Improved information will enable better management of scarce resources and inevitable trade-offs during periods of water scarcity. A multi-attribute understanding of risk will enable the development of new indicators and trigger points for the management of droughts. Decision makers (including senior executives and ministers) will be provided with a more nuanced and accurate assessment of risks and the implications of different management options. Adoption of a risk-based approach to drought management will enable more explicit treatment of uncertainty ad more proportionate allocation of resources to risk reduction.

2. Communities and businesses who may be impacted by droughts and water scarcity, including domestic and industrial water users and farmers, who will benefit from more transparent and risk-informed management of droughts. These benefits will be achieved indirectly through uptake of new science and methodologies by the organisations mentioned in (1) and also via the direct interaction and communication with communities, NGOs and other stakeholders that are planned as part of the MaRIUS project.

3. The natural environment and organisations with responsibility for, or an interest in, protecting the environment from the impacts of droughts and water scarcity, including Natural England, the EA, wildlife trusts and rivers trusts, who will benefit from better understanding of the risks of droughts to the natural environment and the impacts of management options designed to reduce the risks of water scarcity. Involvement in the research will help to ensure that environmental impacts of water scarcity are given appropriate weight alongside water users.

The MaRIUS project is in a strong position to deliver these impacts. The consortium has long-standing links with the stakeholder community, and outstanding experience of delivering impacts from previous projects. The MaRIUS project has a carefully developed dissemination plan and strategies to promote uptake and impact. Jointly with Project Partners in government and industry, we will target decisions taking place during and after the project (e.g. Abstraction reform, Water Resources Management Planning Guideline, EA Water Company Drought Plan Guideline) and processes (e.g. Water Score-Card, Water Situation Report, Hydrological Outlook) where the proposed research is likely to have most impact. Joint work on drought case studies and scenario analyses with our Project Partners will test methodologies and promote applied uptake of the research.
Description Panta Rhei Presentation 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Presentation to Panta Rhei 'Droughts in the Anthropocene' Working Group by Dr Gemma Coxon on 'Integrating drought hydrology to the national scale'
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Presentation at the 2016 Drought Symposium 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Dr Gemma Coxon, University of Bristol spoke on "Drought hydrology on a national scale" at the 2016 MaRIUS Drought Symposium
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016