While many across the UK welcome the arrival of the sunshine and higher temperatures, the risk of 40℃ heatwaves hitting Britain only spells trouble for the UK’s farming and agricultural sector. In 2021, the Environment Agency warned that hotter, drier summers and less predictable rainfall caused by climate change would lead to heightened drought risk with potential water shortages nationwide. Two years on, the National Drought Group is calling for urgent action to prepare the country for the looming threat of drought.
With the UK’s agriculture and food production sectors being one of the highest-consuming industries of water while at the same time contributing £120 billion to the UK economy, there is significant interest in helping enhance drought resilience amongst UK farmers.
However, without support from policymakers and the water industry, farmers alone cannot deliver the radical transformation in water efficiency standards needed to support the sector’s long-term growth.
A reliable source of high-quality, affordable water is the lifeblood of the rural economy. As such, most farmers are well attuned to managing short-term weather-related crop risks through years of experience. However, in the long run, the key to reducing drought risks is ensuring farmers implement water efficiency and conservation technology optimally through guidance from the wider water industry and national authorities.
Role of Farmers
One key recommendation for farmers is to review current practices and consider whether new water efficiency technology could be a worthy investment, considering the savings that might be secured in the water bill and becoming more drought resistant. For instance, many farmers have chosen to implement various precision irrigation systems which help to reduce water wastage.
For example, ‘drip irrigation’ systems deliver water through tiny pipes placed across farmlands, utilizing a low-pressure system to direct a steady water drip across the land and provide consistent nutrition directly to the root. This system helps reduce the evaporation in standard spray water systems and, by adding a timing system scheduling watering for the more excellent parts of the day, can help deliver further water savings.
If installed correctly, such systems can conserve up to 80% more water than conventional irrigation methods and improve root development leading to increased crop yields. However, one of the issues for farmers presented by these systems is speedily recognizing and addressing blockages or damages caused to the piping system.
Within Everflow, we often advise our non-household customers on the best leak detection methods and provide a robust customer support team for additional guidance.
In addition to improved irrigation systems, implementing measures for capturing and storing water is a crucial step to consider. While many fear these processes as highly complex, the truth is that water recycling systems can be as simple as fitting water butts to drainpipes to ensure rainwater is diverted and collected for activities like watering plants or washing vehicles.
This ensures the amount of water coming from a property owner’s main supply is reduced, simultaneously conserving water and reducing bills. For non-household groups with large roof spaces, Everflow has provided rainwater harvesting systems that can be shared amongst businesses near each other to deliver actual savings in their water bills and ensure greater resilience to adverse weather hits.
The Role of Government
Beyond the measures that farmers themselves can invest in, there is undoubtedly a need for a more comprehensive national strategy and regulatory support to ensure the farming industry receives a fair share of the UK’s water resources at an affordable price. Understandably, many farmers will be reluctant to invest in irrigation infrastructure without a long-term strategy from the government. We must ensure the sector feels confident that their irrigation methods are future-proof to make them worthy of investment.
Looking at the water industry, we see that water companies must produce regular water resource management plans to identify water-related risks facing suppliers and set out plans to cope with climate change. The government could do more to ensure the agri-food sector adopts a similar approach to planning.
Such planning will, however, require a constant feed of data. Therefore, deploying more intelligent meters to farmers is essential to help farmers measure their water consumption habits to identify saving opportunities and equip planners with the most accurate data on consumption in the sector to ensure we are prepared for the future.
The Role of Utility Brokers
The water utility bill is so often an overlooked business cost – even by farmers – because, until recently, the power of choice was mainly out of the hands of businesses through regulations mandating the exclusive use of local water suppliers. The deregulation of the industry in 2017 opened the floodgates, creating the world’s most significant competitive water and wastewater retail market.
This empowered businesses to switch providers/renegotiate their contracts via water utility brokers when dissatisfied with the services provided, injecting much-needed competition among retailers and delivering two clear benefits.
Raising awareness amongst farmers of their ability to switch providers is crucial to delivering both cost savings and improved service. Water utility brokers are essential in providing UK businesses with the insights and advice needed to navigate the unchartered waters of this new marketplace.
At its core, water efficiency is centered around maximizing the benefit of every unit of water used, treating water rightly as a vital but limited natural resource. Of all non-household water users, there is perhaps no group more aware of the value of water than farmers; therefore, there is no better group to lead the way in delivering the efficiency and conservation revolution.
Given that the UK has arguably one of the most impressive food markets in the world, how key stakeholders — farmers, water suppliers, and government — address the present challenges will become an essential exemplar from which other nations can learn; it’s time that we lead from the front.
This is a contribution from Josh Gill, CEO & Founder of Everflow