When is a drought not a drought? When it's an area of environmental stress due to rainfall deficit, of course. The less-than-catchy term to describe Britain's current state was suggested yesterday by the Environment Agency as it struggles with public perceptions over what "drought" really means.
The remarkable weather of the last two months has thrown up some strange situations which may need new terms to describe them – not least when people are told the country is in drought as floodwaters surge past their homes.
The problem, according to the agency's head of water resources, Trevor Bishop, is that the word "drought" is too much of a blunt expression."We use a single term to represent a real plethora of situations," he said. "For some farmers, 'drought' might mean that they can't grow cereals, but for others, it might mean the perfect climate for asparagus. It's not one size fits all."
He continued: "People will lose confidence if you tell them there's a drought on while their house is flooded. We may need more sophisticated language. And the more people understand the fundamentals of water resources, the more sophisticated we're going to have to get."
The agency is thinking about how to describe the stages between a normal situation and a drought. Areas of environmental stress due to rainfall deficit (or ESRDs) are one solution. They appeared on the revised drought map of 11 May, which showed that 19 counties had been been taken out of official drought status, but were still suffering from a rainfall deficit over the last two years which was causing stress to the environment.
The agency is considering how to take that further. "We're thinking about gradations in how we describe the water resource situation," Mr Bishop said. "Gradations from a normal situation to a drought. The thinking is ongoing."
The difficulty was thrown into sharp relief with the remarkable weather turn-around of this spring, which has undermined popular images of drought.
After two of the driest winters on record, restrictions on water use involving 20 million people were imposed over much of southern England on 5 April, but almost immediately, the heavens opened and there followed the wettest April since records began in 1910.
The downpours substantially raised flow levels in most rivers, but they were not enough to replenish depleted groundwater stocks, so areas remained officially in drought.
Get the shorts out – Summer's here at last
Summer is set to arrive in Britain this week, with balmy temperatures of up to 25C expected in some parts of the country following the early-spring washout. The mercury is expected to peak at 21C in the south-east today with temperatures elsewhere in the mid to high teens. Tomorrow is predicted to be even hotter.