Scientific challenge: 

Dried stream bed (photo: Ned Hewitt)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 logoHistoric Droughts is a four-year (2014 – 2018) £1.5m project funded by the UK Research Councils. It aims to develop 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), the project aims to characterise and quantify the history of drought and water scarcity since the late 19th century.


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

The project will deliver the first systematic account (the UK Drought Inventory) of past droughts in the UK. The Inventory will form the basis of a novel joint hydro-meteorological and socio-economic analysis that will lead to 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. 

We expect this systems-based understanding to improve decision-making for future drought management and planning, and to facilitate more informed and, thus, effective public discourse related to drought.

In summary the key research outcomes will be:

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

An interactive website dedicated to the Historic Droughts project is currently under development.  


  • 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


  • British Geological Survey (BGS)
  • Cranfield University
  • HR Wallingford
  • Lancaster University
  • Met Office
  • University of Exeter
  • University of Oxford