‘We cannot live without water, but because it is so much part of our everyday existence it has become invisible to us. We need to understand and acknowledge its importance to modern lifestyles and to start to value the role it plays in all our lives’ — Natural Capital Coalition.
Essential for life on earth, the veins of freshwater course through our land, providing drinking water, habitats and nutrients. Water also has huge intrinsic value for human society, with many choosing to live near water for wellbeing reasons. These factors make water a huge natural capital asset, making it paradoxical that a developed country such as England has failed to look after its most precious resource.
The state of English rivers
Just 14 per cent of rivers in England achieved good ecological status in 2016, with 1902 pollution incidents in England since 2012. Of our 48 salmon rivers, none are classed as ‘not at risk’ for losing salmon populations, and just 20 per cent of our unique chalk streams meet good ecological status, with many drying out. England is privileged with 160 of the 210 chalk streams found worldwide, making our lack of stewardship for these beautiful habitats a global disgrace.
However, degraded water quality in England is not a new problem. Over 32 years ago, MP Phillip Lilley argued that rivers were being over-abstracted; his plea was largely ignored by the government both at the time and today, with economic gains prevailing over environmental protection.
Not only have we polluted watercourses with sewage effluent, phosphates, nitrates, and sediment, but we’re now discovering the effects of a new array of ‘emerging’ pollutants including plastics, wet wipes and medicinals. Furthermore, many watercourses in England have been heavily modified — less than 15 per cent of rivers have natural flow regimes. These man-made modifications prevent natural processes from occurring, have adverse effects on wildlife, and cause many of the flooding issues seen today.
The Environment Agency recently reported that England could suffer major water shortages by 2030. Despite being in a temperate country, London is included on a list of eleven cities worldwide most likely to run out of water, largely due to a historic under-investment in water infrastructure, and because of relatively low rainfall (~600mm/year). Because of the low rainfall, over 80 per cent of water in London is extracted from rivers, but according to the Greater London Authority, the city has almost hit its limits. Furthermore, in order to achieve good status in the London catchments, an investment of around £400 million is needed.
Wildlife in watercourses has suffered considerably due to pollution and modification; algal blooms can cause oxygen deficiencies and lack of visibility, and certain chemicals can alter breeding cues. Excess sediment can also clog gills and affect spawning site availability. Plastic in watercourses can also be detrimental to wildlife which can get trapped. Furthermore, the full effects of microplastics are currently unknown despite being found in the guts of many species.
How can the government help our watercourses to recover?
Our government is aiming for 75 per cent of rivers to reach good ecological status for 2027. This is rather ambitious considering that our rivers have become progressively worse in recent years; furthermore, the UK has already missed 3 similar deadlines, giving little hope that this time will be any different. However, regardless of your view on leaving the EU, Brexit undoubtedly offers an opportunity to make drastic changes, and these could not come soon enough as long as the right decisions are made.
An integrated catchment-level approach is required with a high level of stakeholder engagement and public empowerment if substantial improvements to water quality are to be achieved. However, there is a glimmer of hope: Ofwat (the economic regulator of the water sector in England and Wales) has recently shown interest in improving the environment. This must now lead to productive, meaningful conversations about the future of our rivers between water companies, NGOs, and the government.
How can I help our watercourses to recover?
Stop flushing wet wipes
The ‘flushable’ advertising you see on their packaging means nothing. All that is meant by ‘flushable’ is that they disappear when you flush your toilet. They do not, however, break down, so they end up accumulating on the side of river beds, damaging important habitats and reshaping banks. The government have recently pledged to ban wet wipes; this is a positive move, however, they have allowed themselves 25 years to do so. This is far too long, so we must take action ourselves.
Cut out single-use plastic
I’m sure we have all already started cutting down on single-use plastics since Blue Planet made us all more aware of its detrimental effects. However, it is still a huge issue that needs addressing — and fast. One company attempting to address the issue of plastic pollution is Globechain, a reuse marketplace which encourages the reuse rather than disposal of items including plastics.
Make ethical purchases
Water pollution is also a huge problem in other countries; purchasing cheaply made clothes from other countries will be contributing catastrophically to water quality and availability. This does not mean spending more money, but investing in less, better quality clothes that will stand the test of time. Check out a list of ethical fashion brands here.
Use less water
This does not mean you have to stop drinking and washing but think about whether you are using any unnecessarily. Make sure the tap is not left running whilst you brush your teeth; pee in the shower (yes, really!); have a shower instead of a deep bath. None of these are major life changes but if we all do it the effects could be huge.
Get involved in river cleans
Make more efficient use of crop inputs (e.g. fertilisers/ phosphates)
The FAO (2018) estimated that 3–20 per cent of phosphates applied to land are lost to watercourses. This is not only polluting rivers but also has financial costs. Furthermore, if you can, find alternatives which are less damaging, for example switch from metaldehyde for slug control to ferric phosphate. Just a couple of metaldehyde pellets reaching a watercourse can cause up to 30km of pollution.
Lobby your MP to push for meaningful changes to policy and to install fish passes/remove weirs
WWF has launched an interactive map where you can find out the state of your local river and send a message to your MP to ask them to pressure the government to act.
An integrated wetland project run by Norfolk Rivers Trust has been found to reduce phosphate levels by up to 50 per cent in the river Mun, as well as providing habitat for wildlife, leading to increases in bird species and otter colonisation. At the recent Rivers Trust Conference the project manager argued that more integrated wetland projects are needed to reduce both pollution and flood risk.
Thames21 started out as a small, independent engagement project, but the charity today has been so successful that it has expanded to cover river restoration and tackling invasives as well as continuing to engage with the public. Empowering the public is vital for addressing water quality issues; there is power in numbers!