We know that ‘heat waves are a silent killer, mostly affecting the elderly, the very young, or the chronically ill’. (Bhattacharya, 2003)
These groups are unlikely to be represented in popular media or using social media and will be reliant on friends and relatives for their care. Coupled with the silence of their under-representation we should add invisibility – because images of drought and hot weather as iconic events are nowhere near as newsworthy as floods, which are dramatic and devastating, offering media organisations a ‘spectacle’ in a time constrained package.
Drought is less spectacular, slow (i.e. ‘creeping’) while ‘heat waves’ in the UK carry memories of 1970s nostalgia.
Dig a little deeper and we find some unhelpful media frameworks for thinking about resilience to drought and heat waves.
Drought and disability
It is interesting that when ‘drought’ is represented, the vulnerability is expressed in terms of disability.
Take two examples. The first is academic from Prof Carolyn Roberts, the first Frank Jackson Professor of the Environment at Gresham College, London.
Her talk about the creeping paralysis of drought is insightful.
The second from the now defunct newspaper, The Independent in 2012.
What is striking about them is that a Google news search finds the terms ‘creeping paralysis’ or ‘crippling’ frequently used to define a drought.
Language is important here as any media theorist would tell you. To describe droughts in this way identifies a bodily, invisible and quiet deterioration that resists representation.
Part of the problem with public lack of awareness of drought is in how the problem is represented when it is a ‘real problem’.
During the dry weather of 2012 Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Angling Trust, said: ‘The vast majority of people are unaware that we are in the middle of a crippling drought – river levels are lower in many areas than they were in 1976.’
No one wants to be paralysed or crippled or creeped up on, so there must be some new language invented to define and describe water scarcity and drought.
Part of our work in the DRY project is to explore a) what these new languages are and b) how to engage a mix of media in a new representations of drought.
Spectacles of Hot Weather
Not all hot weather is invisible. Its impacts certainly are spectacles.
In the excellent collection Extreme Weather and Global Media (2015) edited by Leyda and Negra, we find a chapter by Paula Gilligan on the values articulated during a heat wave in the UK. She makes the point that heat waves produce media-specific templates with print media opting for ‘bikini-clad’ models.
One of the key ways in which people learn about heat waves is when they Google them: past heatwaves.
In the UK, the 1976 heat wave is the most prominent collective memory of hot weather. It is used as the benchmark by journalists as well as environmental agencies to measure more recent heat waves.
It generated 796 comments as of writing, many of which were memories (nostalgic, reminiscences, anecdotes, family stories, work stories, and recollections of popular music and culture).
‘Everyone does hot quite hot’
Getty Images provide many of the now iconic photographs of ‘warning signs’, sunbathers and empty reservoirs of 1976, and Pathé News provide silent footage of women in London with the following ‘description’ added by the archivist:
‘Various shots of people walking around in T-shirts and shorts during the hot summer weather of the 1976 heat wave. The cameraman seems to focus on women. Lots of short shorts and tight tops. Everyone does hot quite hot.’
How people use media to remember 1976 is important to be aware of, and the access people have to media representations of one of the most severe droughts in UK history is equally important to study.
It’s critical because as we seek to engage the public in drought through narrative methods, we need to accept that they are always already audiences of other media narratives as well as personal and family memories.
The aspect gender plays in this is also key to recognise not only in how heat waves are ‘sexed-up’ as ‘sizzling’ but also how water scarcity impact disproportionately on older women. In 2003, the heat wave across Europe had France dealing with a rapid increase in deaths, with women worst hit.
We have the opportunity with the DRY project to build in to our findings a recognition of the media narratives of drought and heat waves that will compete for attention with our research.
Real stories of water scarcity in the United Kingdom have been silent and invisible. If we continue within the current template of popular narratives of heat waves, where drought is for scientists and heat waves are for the tabloids, we will indeed be taken by surprise.
Water scarcity may well creep up and paralyse communities, and many groups who are rather silenced or invisible may continue to be disproportionately impacted.