Britain should improve water supply for business and farming in the face of more frequent floods and droughts, according to the Environment Agency.

Last year one in every five days saw flooding, but one in four days were in drought, including hosepipe bans affecting more than 20 million people.

Rivers such as the Tyne, Ouse and Tone went from their lowest to their highest flows since records began in the space of four months.

In 2012 Environment Agency flood defences protected 200,000 homes and businesses and more than 6,000 flood warnings and alerts were issued.

New Met Office analysis suggests that the UK could experience a severe short-term drought – such as the one experienced in 1976 – every 10 years.

And with the population of London and the already water-stressed south-east of England set to grow by 23% by 2035, the agency is calling on farmers to act now on water security.

Extreme weather facts in 2012

  • 7,950 properties flooded
  • 78 days of 2012 saw flooding (1 in 5)
  • 95 days were officially in drought (1 in 4)
  • A hosepipe ban affected more than 20 million people
  • Daily river flows across England and Wales reached record levels on 48 days last year – the highest since records began more than 50 years ago (National River Flow Archive)

Water storage reservoirs are one of the options for securing a more reliable water supply for irrigation, mainly used by farmers.

There are about 1,700 small-scale storage reservoirs across England and Wales, supplying 30% of total irrigation needs. But this will need to increase to help improve the resilience during future dry periods, warns the agency.

Lord Chris Smith, Environment Agency chairman, said: “The extremes of weather that we saw last year highlight the urgent need to plan for a changing climate.

“More of this extreme weather will exacerbate many of the problems that we already deal with, including flooding and water scarcity, so taking action today to prepare and adapt homes, businesses, agricultural practices and infrastructure is vital.”

Pressures on water availability, including extreme weather events, growing demand and historic over-abstraction are already affecting the availability of water supplies for irrigation. Some farmers who rely on water from rivers were unable to abstract water in the summer.

Modelling suggests that a changing climate could reduce some river flows by up to 80% during the summer in the next 40 years – increasing the challenge of ensuring there is enough water for people, business, farmers and the environment.

Water companies, farmers and other businesses are being urged to look at ways to improve water storage and reduce and share the amount of water they use.

The NFU is urging members to build resilience into future water availability on farms so they are in a better position to face the next drought.

In particular, the union recommends that farmers review their abstraction licences before the next irrigation season starts.

Paul Hammett, the NFU’s national water resource specialist, said: “It’s great that the agency helped farmers out during last year’s unforeseen emergency. But we all need to think of ways to improve water security on farms in the longer term.”

More on this topic

Farmers must adapt to variable weather

Philip Case on G+