Urgent action call to help farms cope with weather extremes

High river levels causing flooding around Knettishall Heath in Suffolk.
Credit - Sonya Duncan

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has called for urgent action to ensure food growers can cope with water issues ranging from floods to droughts - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Severe flooding this winter has proved the urgent need for a "joined-up" strategy to protect farmland and water resources from extreme weather events, said farming leaders.

The National Farmers' Union (NFU) has launched a new report calling for action to update the nation’s water infrastructure so it can cope better with increasing droughts and deluges.

It is a particularly important issue in East Anglia, where the low-lying, fertile soils and dry, warm climate make it a vital region for UK food production - but also vulnerable to winter flooding and summer droughts.

The report urges government, water companies and farmers to work together within an "integrated water strategy" which would require "significant investment" in infrastructure to upgrade ageing flood defences, drainage and waterways.

But it also says farmers themselves can play a crucial role in making their businesses more resilient by developing rainwater harvesting systems, building reservoirs and using precision irrigation - as long as they have the support and funding to do it.

NFU deputy president Stuart Roberts said severe weather events were becoming more extreme and more regular due to climate change, impacting British farming’s ability to produce food.

National Farmers Union (NFU) deputy president Stuart Roberts says more needs to be done to improve f

National Farmers Union (NFU) deputy president Stuart Roberts - Credit: Simon Hadley

"We need to think long-term instead of reacting every time we’re hit by a severe storm or a spell of hot, dry weather," he said.

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"Cooperation and collaboration between farmers, government and water companies is vital in our response to managing flooding and drought risk, to protect productive farmland and ensure farmers are getting their fair share of water. 

"Crucially, farmers are ready to play their part. There are already great examples of farmers adapting their businesses to make them more resilient to extreme weather by developing on-farm rainwater harvesting systems and using precision irrigation.

"They can do much more as long as they have support and the tools to do so; being able to access funding to build more on-farm reservoirs and to invest in new irrigation equipment would help alleviate flooding and secure more water."

Mr Roberts said Britain must embrace its engineering and science skills to solve the problem of getting available water to where it was needed.

The dry August heatwave has created water worries for East Anglian farmers growing irrigated fruit a

Crops being irrigated during a dry East Anglian summer

"At times we have got too much water, at other times we have not got enough, and often it is in the wrong places," he said.

"In summer 2019 I met with two groups of farmers - one group in Norfolk were struggling with a drought and with abstraction challenges. Then, 24 hours later, we met a separate group of farmers in Lincolnshire, one of whom had hundreds of acres of farmland under about four feet of water. The distance between those two groups of farmers was just 53 miles.

"Just to put some volumes on that, if I take the group of 180 farmers in Norfolk, in any one year they have a maximum abstraction licence, combined, of about 13 million cubic metres of water. That is their entire maximum licence amount, not what they use.

"At the same time, in a two-week period in Lincolnshire, one IDB (internal drainage board), pumped 19 million cubic metres of fresh water into the North Sea, where it is of no use to us.

"It is amazing to think how we can better invest, how we can link up governments, farmers, the Environment Agency, water companies and many others to join up infrastructure to make sure our fruit and veg sector, for example, will be able to maximise the use of the fresh water that we will have available."

Regionally, the report says East Anglia faces "significant and increasing risks of water shortages" because of the prospect of more frequent and severe droughts.

But water availability is already under pressure from housing growth and the need to protect and enhance the environment, it says, with irrigated agriculture highly dependent on chalk aquifers which are already considered to be over-abstracted.

Regional priorities outlined by the NFU for East Anglia include:

  • "Secure access to reliable quantities of water".
  • "Minimal complexity in regulatory processes", allowing farmers to secure water when they need it.
  • Recognition that productive farmland is "valuable and deserving of protection against sea level rise and extreme weather".
  • Major upgrades in the flood defence infrastructure of the Fens and the Broads.
  • Adoption of policies that give farmers "confidence to take on debt and invest to make businesses sustainable and fit for the future".

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