UK farmers could face severe water shortage: climate change committee

10 Jul 2013


UK's farmers could face a severe water shortage putting a considerable extra strain on the nation's resources and make the UK increasingly dependent on imported crops, a government committee has warned.

Global warming would result in hotter, drier summers reducing the amount of rainfall available for plant irrigation, at a time when the increasingly parched soil required more water, according to a report by the Committee on Climate Change (CCC).

Farmers could be faced with a water shortfall of 115 billion litres a year, about half of the 240 billion litres they currently used, with the south and east of the country, where most crops were grown, likely to be hit particularly hard. The CCC warned, this could make it difficult – and more expensive – to grow water-intensive crops such as potatoes, carrots and fruit.

Also, with water supplies to households and businesses already under great pressure, farmers might not be able to rely on tap, or public, water to make up the shortfall, according to Lord Krebs, chairman of the CCC's adaptation sub-committee.

Farmers in the UK, get about half of the water they need from the tap, with the remainder coming from so-called abstraction – from rivers, lakes and groundwater.

The report said, without action, increasingly hot and dry summers might mean farmers would face shortfalls of 50 per cent of the water they currently used to grow crops. The report also warned that current farming practices might be letting the country's richest soils to be washed or blown away.

According to Lord Krebs, if action was not initiated now there would be serious trouble. He added, the UK already relied on food imports to a significant extent. Imports constituted about 40 per cent of the food consumed in the UK.

However, despite recent gloomy summers and suggestions of more on the way, most climate scientists remained confident that summers in the medium term would become drier and hotter.

According to the findings of the CCC, a dry year in the 2020s could see an irrigation shortfall of 120 billion litres, half the current total used by farmers. Additionally, those areas most at risk of drought – the fields of east and southern England were currently the most productive.

To avoid this, farmers would need to build twice as many reservoirs on their land than existed now and also cut by 50 per cent the amount of water used per hectare.

Ensuring that the cost of water reflected how scarce it was, was also crucial, according to the report. Currently by way of example, the cheapest water by far was provided by Anglian water, despite that region being one of the driest in the country.

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