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Increase resilience and manage pressures

Natalie Le Brun, Policy Officer at RSPB explores our dependencies on a healthy water environment and highlights the importance of increasing resilience.

August 2020

As we start to see significant changes in our environment, from missing the daily calls of familiar birds, to major flood events that wreak havoc on our livelihoods; we realise that climate change and biodiversity loss is already upon us. A growing population, global climate change, intensive farming, and limited resources are combining to put our freshwater environment at risk. As a resource that every species depends on, including ourselves, it is imperative that we protect it. Over the past decade, many parts of England have experienced drought, resulting in lost crops, chalk streams drying up, and bans on household water use.

A recent Public Accounts Committee report highlighted that such water shortages will worsen over the coming years, impacting aquatic wildlife, and damaging our wider natural environment. We are woefully underprepared. What’s more, almost three quarters of the British public mistakenly believe the country has enough water to meet its needs , despite government, environmental organisations, and scientists warning that we could have no more than 20 years supply in some areas. This low level of public awareness has resulted in water efficiency measures ranked low down on the list of environmental concerns, with plastic pollution, energy consumption, food waste and generation of carbon footprint all considered more important.

The current global pandemic and exit from the European Union has provided the opportunity for a transformative green recovery. We must review the effects of our behaviour and choices on the water environment, set ambitious targets, explore innovative solutions, and access new funding to address this crisis. Blueprint for Water, the freshwater collective of Wildlife and Countryside Link, have set out key recommendations for government and water companies to improve and protect our water environment. These include:

• Setting a statutory national water saving target in the Environment Bill, and rapid action to reduce damaging abstraction through the Abstraction Plan. This includes bringing forward the 2028 timeframe -originally promised in 2011 - to 2021.
• Introducing a national water labelling scheme and minimum standards for products.
• Tightening of water efficiency regulations for new buildings – with all new and retrofit housing, business and infrastructure developments planned to adopt measures for water efficiency, flood resilience, sustainable drainage and wastewater treatment as a top priority.

Holding government and regulators to account can only be done where there is evidence supporting our recommendations. Working closely with the water industry Blueprint for Water recently commissioned a project exploring opportunities to build a more resilient system, recognising the value of the natural environment, and interdependencies with the water sector. The first phase of this research formed the ‘Naturally Resilient’ project. The project was funded by various stakeholders within the water industry, including eNGOs, water companies, and regulators; and explored the interplay between the water industry and environmental sector, and how we can work together to build a more resilient system.

We examined how a ‘naturally resilient’ approach could assist water companies in managing future challenges and pressures around disruption and demand concerns. Environmental degradation; climate change; natural hazards; political or regulatory frameworks; and socio-economic factors such as population growth, were identified as current and future risks to resilience in both sectors. Management measures included solutions such as: managing catchments and land, managing housing developments and managing water supply and demand.

The research highlighted the complexity of resilience, with many inter-related factors and numerous affected stakeholders. Ultimately, addressing resilience as a whole is unlikely to be fruitful, and instead we need to identify local solutions for local problems. An online repository of case studies, detailing successful partnership work could be a first step, providing much needed evidence and lessons learned for future projects. The nature of environmental resilience means that a combination of localised and more generalised, national measures will be necessary in the long term, and we call on government departments to strengthen policy and legislative direction. The one thing that we know for sure is that we need to work in collaboration to protect our water environment for years to come.

Nat Le Brun, Policy Officer, RSPB

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The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.