Where have the rivers gone?

River beds are dry, wildlife is suffering, but no one has come close to mentioning a drought. What’s going on?

Is this a footpath meandering under an old bridge?  I’m afraid not. It’s actually a river: the River Quin in Hertfordshire in spring this year.  And plenty of other rivers, particularly in the south and east of England, have looked like this for periods this spring and early summer: the River Rib in Hertfordshire, the Chess in Buckinghamshire, the River Colne in London and many more.

Is this what you expect your local river to look like under normal conditions?

It’s true that parts of the country haven’t seen much rain, despite some heavy downpours. Indeed, 2016/2017 was a particularly dry winter and if the dry weather continues into the autumn, we may find ourselves on the cusp of an official drought in the south east.  But right now water is coming out of my taps just fine and I’ve not heard any mention of a hosepipe ban. I wonder what the fish in the River Quin think about that? Perhaps they should move to my local paddling pool?

Dry spells and drought are likely to become more frequent because of climate change, but, before we blame everything on the weather and climate change, I want to highlight the underlying problem. In many parts of the country we’re pumping more water out of our rivers than can be naturally replenished, in many cases we’re using water wastefully and national regulations around water use are insufficient to stop our rivers drying up.

WWF’s recent report, Water for Wildlife: tackling drought and unsustainable abstraction, brings attention to this crisis: the scale of over-abstraction from rivers, how the current approach to preventing damage by abstraction is taking too long, how wildlife is suffering, and how many people are concerned by the current state of affairs.

  • 24% of rivers in England are at risk from too much water being abstracted.
  • Low river flows affect the whole river ecosystem, from the smallest bug to the biggest fish.
  • At the current rate of progress, it could be 2050 before today’s damage is addressed.
  • 68% of people are worried about the impact on the environment of taking too much water from rivers.
  • Over 80% of people agree the Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to be more water efficient.

Rivers aren’t just important for wildlife, they’re also important to people – to us. They help us connect to the natural world: we like to walk and picnic by rivers, let our children paddle and our dogs swim in rivers, and use rivers for fishing and boating. Thriving, flowing rivers also bring many economic benefits.

We must restore our rivers before it is too late. As well as working with our colleagues in Blueprint and supporting the Blueprint for PR19 campaign, at WWF we’re calling on the Government to urgently address how we’re managing water, and for water companies to think about alternative ways of meeting water needs in their 2020-2025 business plans.  Specifically, we’re asking for:

  • A national strategy to cut water waste to include engaging the public about the value of water, making every home and business water efficient, and making paying for water fairer through universal water metering
  • A revised process for dealing with abstraction licences that are already causing damage to habitats and wildlife. This would include support for water companies and other abstractors, such as farmers and businesses, to enable them to cope with potential reductions in the amount of water they’re able to abstract from rivers
  • Environmental limits on all water abstractions, to ensure there is enough water for wildlife in every river, and a mechanism to manage how reductions in abstraction are managed and shared across river catchment areas
  • Important European Legislation that protects rivers, such as the Water Framework Directive, to be fully transposed after Brexit.

The need for these changes have long been recognised by the Government: their 2011 Water White Paper, Water for Life, promised new legislation to address over-abstraction; and the 2013 paper, Making the Most of Every Drop, set out the Government’s abstraction reform proposals.

But, Brexit has put pressure on parliamentary time, and these urgent reforms seem to have been kicked into the long grass. We strongly urge the new government to reconsider and push water management up the agenda, and for water companies to set out how they will sustainably manage abstraction in their next round of business plans – before we stumble across more lost rivers.

Catherine Moncrieff
Freshwater Programme and Policy Manager, WWF-UK

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