Scientific challenge

Drought and water scarcity are significant threats to livelihoods and wellbeing in many countries, including the UK. Parts of the country are already water-stressed and are facing a wide range of pressures, including an expanding population and intensifying exploitation of increasingly limited water resources. In addition, many regions may become significantly drier in future due to environmental changes, all of which implies major challenges to water resource management.

However, droughts are not simply natural hazards. There are also a range of socio-economic and regulatory factors that may influence the course of droughts, such as water consumption practices and abstraction licensing regimes. Consequently, if drought and water scarcity are to be better managed, there is a need for a more detailed understanding of the links between physical (i.e. meteorological, hydrological) and social and economic systems during droughts.

Project overview


Historic Droughts project 160px logo

Historic Droughts was a four-year (2014 – 2018) £1.5m project funded by the UK Research Councils as part of the Drought & Water Scarcity Programme. It developed a cross-disciplinary understanding of past drought episodes that have affected the UK, with a view to developing improved tools for managing droughts in future.

Based on an analysis of information from a wide range of sectors (hydrometeorological, environmental, agricultural, regulatory, social and cultural), Historic Droughts characterised and quantified the history of drought and water scarcity since the late 19th century.


Hurstwood Reservoir credit: © United Utilities
Hurstwood Reservoir (credit: © United Utilities

The project delivered the first systematic account (the UK Drought Inventory) of past droughts in the UK. The Inventory has formed the basis for joint hydro-meteorological and socio-economic analysis enabling a ‘systems-based’ understanding of drought – i.e an understanding of the multiple and interconnected drivers of drought, the impacts of drought and the feedbacks between them. 

The key research outcomes were:

  • A systems-based understanding of drought in the context of multiple environmental and societal drivers;
  • An accessible, integrated cross-sector UK Drought Inventory; and
  • Improved advice and methods to support decision making related to drought management; and, new strategies to re-frame public discourse related to drought.


  • Natural Environment Research Council
  • Economic and Social Research Council
  • Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council

Principal Investigator

  • 2013 onwards: Group Leader, Hydrological Status and Reporting Group, UKCEH

  • 2009 - 2014: Head, National River Flow Archive (NRFA), CEH.

  • 2007 - 2009: Leader, NRFA Data Analysis and Exploitation function, CEH 

  • 2001 - 2007: Hydrological Analyst in the National River Flow Archive (NRFA) at CEH, developing methods for data acquisition and quality control, and working on trend detection