The flood-drought continuum and why it is important to prepare across water risks

DRY Project lead Professor Lindsey McEwen explains the flood-drought continuum and its value when considering community resilience in a guest blog.

Two images from the DRY picture book (Luci Gorell Barnes, 2019, digital collage)

What is the flood-drought continuum?

Floods and droughts sit at either end of a hydrological continuum and both risks affect the UK.  Flooding is complex and often compound, combining the different types of river flooding, surface runoff, tides/surges on coasts and groundwater, in the UK this can also include flash flooding in rapid response catchments and surface water flooding affecting urban areas. Drought can be defined in different ways: meteorological drought when there are extended periods without rainfall; agricultural (or soil moisture) drought with effects on, for example, grassland and crop growth; hydrological drought when rivers or other waterbodies become low; and finally full-blown water supply drought.

Both floods and droughts are set to increase under climate change scenarios in the UK (IPCC, 2022). It is possible to have floods during periods of underlying drought and drought conditions persisting after flooding. Indeed, dry periods leading to hard compacted soils can increase flood problems, with water running off quickly into water courses. Storm water flushing pollutants – heavy metals and bacteria – off roads and pavements after long periods of dryness can cause pollution in rivers impacting use by people, pets and nature. 

Despite this, statutory responsibilities for managing flood and drought risk tend to sit within different departments or organisations.

What are its implications for community engagement?

It is increasingly important to engage communities about both floods and droughts, but this brings challenges for several reasons.

These extreme weather risks are experienced by communities in very different ways. Floods are visible and emotive risks while droughts tend to be hidden and diffuse – at least in their early stages. Floods tend to be more strongly on people’s radar, while emerging droughts may only be noticed by certain members of the community. Those who grow crops, such as gardeners, allotment holders and farmers, are likely to notice lack of rainfall and dry soils, while those who engage with rivers for sport and recreation, such as fishermen and canoeists, are more likely to notice low water levels. Many others will not be aware of drought until the water supply is interrupted. In addition, the public can associate drought positively with heat and warm sunny days when in fact it can continue over dry winters as well. As an additional challenge, every drought is different.

The DRY Z-cards – ‘Water, drought and you’

In addition, the idea that floods and droughts might occur at the same time is hard for people to engage with. This is partly because of the myth of infinite water and green land in the UK. It is also because water deficits take a long time to recover; one fall of heavy rainfall does not end a drought. It is also important to match communications about risk to the weather conditions at the time.  Communicating about drought when it is raining tends not to work.

How does thinking about water risks together help communities preparing for climate resilience?

There are valuable opportunities to think about water risk more holistically. A community that is resilient to one risk is already likely to be more resilient to another, so it is more effective to build broader resilience within communities beyond a resilience to flooding.  Below are examples of how existing approaches to managing risk can be combined or joined-up.  

Some people are the ‘eyes and ears’ on the ground for weather and its impacts in communities – such as weather wardens or citizen scientists recording rainfall or monitoring the river. These can have valuable local knowledge of relative dryness and wetness and change in their locale. 

The same community networks that share information and skills about ‘how to prepare’ for one type of extreme weather risk can be used for another, for example, floods, drought (or heat, snow etc). These networks can support community training to prepare, respond and adapt to other extreme weather risks and hazards.  

Local networks also include volunteers providing mutual aid locally to support more vulnerable groups in communities. There are overlaps in groups likely to be socially vulnerable and exposed to floods and droughts by age, gender, income and disability.

Some of the specific measures used in adapting to floods can also help prepare for droughts and wider climate resilience. For example, installation of water butts in households helps to store water locally. In some settings like Hull, this distributed way of collecting water is being trialled as a flood mitigation method that also stores water for watering gardens in dry periods.

Similarly, on a broader neighbourhood scale, Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) within communities help slow the flow to local water courses and deal with rainfall as close to its source as possible. Involving the public in the care and maintenance of SuDS schemes is important (see CIRIA animation – ‘Ever wonder where the rain goes?’). 

‘Thinking about water risks together’ involves “thinking about water as a valuable resource” which can feel hard when there is too much water in the wrong place at the wrong time during flooding.  In building climate resilience, we all need to think about how we value, and live with and without water. This will need communities prepared to recognise that water is at the same time “fragile, precious and dangerous” (United Nations Panel on Water).

Further Resources

The DRY Utility website has resources to support learning about UK drought – for schools and communities like Z cards and a primary school book.  It also provides information on ‘Communicating drought’.

About the author

Lindsey McEwen is Professor of Environmental Management and Director of the Centre for Water, Communities and Resilience at the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.  Her research focuses on water risk management, working in community settings.  She was lead on the 5-year Natural Environment Research Council funded DRY (Drought Risk and You) project.

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