Stronger action required to protect UK’s water environment in the face of growing pressures

While many in the UK take cheap, clean, plentiful water for granted, to achieve SDG 6 targets we need to manage our water resources and the water environment better in the face of increasing pressures. Alastair Chisholm from CIWEM explains.

You can’t get away from it; water touches everything. Like the air we breathe, water is the essence of life. Humans are roughly 60 percent water. Take it away and we die. Pollute it and it either makes us sick or degrades our environment, compromising ecosystem functions which are vital to a healthy, well-nourished and prosperous society.

Strong performance on drinking water and sanitation

In the UK we were at the vanguard of developing modern-day water treatment and sanitation technology and infrastructure. During the Industrial Revolution, barely-managed sewage and wastewater caused widespread disease which ultimately reached Parliament in the form of the ‘Great Stink’.

Repulsed, MPs demanded action and we have since seen the progression to a largely centralised system of water and sanitation provision which is amongst the best in the world. Consequently, the proportion of the UK population using safely managed drinking water services is very high. Statistics for those with access to adequate and equitable sanitation are very similar, at 99 percent.

But our water environment is under strain and needs better stewardship

Contrast such statistics with other areas of water management and you get to the nub of the challenge. In 2016, only 14% of river water bodies were classified as ‘good or better’ status under the EU Water Framework Directive. Of course, such figures aren’t directly comparable; those relating to water and sanitation have a direct bearing on human health are rightly a focus for the most concerted attention. But the gulf in performance should be a cause for concern.

We have seen a slow decline in the quality of our water bodies over recent decades. Once, heavy industry spewed toxic effluent into the virtually dead urban rivers of British industrial heartlands, but rural streams, rivers and lakes teemed with wildlife. Today, low level, diffuse pollution (mostly agricultural and urban runoff) means that outside pockets of protected sites and remote landscape, aquatic wildlife is either in decline or clinging on to weakened position.

Government has pledged to tackle this fragile status. Under its 25 Year Environment Plan, 75% of all water bodies should be as close to their natural state as possible, as soon as practicable.

There is still a great legacy of ageing sewerage and drainage infrastructure which results in pollution of our rivers far too often. Significant numbers of Combined Sewer Overflows still discharge during storm events every year and sewer replacement rates are behind those of our European neighbours. Though pollution incidents have fallen in recent years, in 2016 the number of the most serious incidents by water companies increased.

At the other end of the spectrum, demand for water is growing as population increases and the demographics of society change. Government housing targets allied to projections of increasing levels of water stress due to climate change mean concerted action is needed on a number of fronts.

We need to be smarter at capturing water when it’s plentiful to enable resources to recharge so that we have enough water when supplies are tight. It’s likely that more resources will need to be developed. But we need to do a lot more to waste less. The Secretary of State for the Environment and Chair of the Water Regulator, OFWAT, have rightly been outspoken about the need for water companies to go further in promoting efficiency and reducing leakage from their water distribution networks.

As society we can all do more to become more water efficient, but we need the right signals to help us including improved labelling of water using products and fittings and widespread use of smart water meters so that we can tell how much water we’re using and when.

We also need to make sure that enough water is left in the environment so that it can cope with dry weather. Ongoing reform of abstraction licensing is introducing an approach of increased cooperation amongst water users at a catchment scale.

As Measuring up shows, whilst UK progress against SDG 6 is strong in the very obvious areas, this is a picture of complex and intertwined pressures, which will only grow between now and 2030. It’s a picture in which a need for water stewardship must permeate so much of our thinking.

Alastair Chisholm is Director of Policy at CIWEM, lead authors of the Goal 6 chapter in Measuring up.