Beaver pool, Spains Hall, Essex

Environment Agency Chief Executive John Curtin discusses 'A Fresh Water Future'

Energy & Climate Change, Flooding, Natural Environment, Processed Water, Water Resources

CIWEM's policy director Alastair Chisholm and Planet Possible podcast host Niki Roach caught up with John Curtin at Flood and Coast 2023. They chatted the future on everything from sewage to sea level rise. Curtin emphasised the importance of collaboration and set out the alarming reality that keeps him awake at night.

We put it to Curtin that there is a lot of call for an uptick in ambition on water management given the many challenges – pollution, drought, flood – going on in the sector right now. He agrees and points to the government’s holistic Plan for Water as the bones of that. Beyond the media headlines on wet wipes, he says it was his idea of a water Christmas because it had all the important water issues in it.

“It’s the best combination of different features that we’ve had for a long time. But now of course we have to make it happen” he says.

Curtin immediately comes across as an enthusiast and an optimist. He worked his way up through the Environment Agency from being a hydrologist and he’s a people person who believes bringing people together, understanding their priorities and needs and co-developing solutions is the way to build on the current attention on water.

He points to the Office of National Statistics quarterly priorities survey done with members of the public and that climate change and the environment recently ranked fourth-highest on priority lists – despite immediate cost of living crises and war in Europe. He sees a fundamental shift in thinking – away from the old view that investing in the environment was something you could do when the economy was healthy, to something that’s important even when it’s struggling.

Curtin worries about the toxicity of some of the water debate though and says we need to get beyond the social media antagonism to somewhere more constructive and solutions-focused now.

“Here’s a controversial thing: Some water companies do really good stuff on the environment and I’m worried that every time a water company does something good, every time a river trust works with a water company they get batted down. That erosion of people doing great things on the environment ultimately means we’ll all lose.”

“Obviously I talk to EA employees. I love the Environment Agency; there are 12,000 passionate people in the organisation who get up in the morning to make a positive difference to their local environment. Sometimes when you see the social media commentary you think “you’ve just not met these people”. It’s a lazy approach and it’s not reflective of reality and it’s really eroding their morale and their passion.”

Working with nature could be central to unlocking a positive vision of water management and building a higher sense of value attached to water in the UK.

Curtin refers back to his journey managing flood risk in the Agency and to how natural flood management has evolved from being an option you potentially looked to once potential for large defences or property resilience had been explored and that now it’s not just becoming an integral part of most if not all schemes but also expanding in scale. “There’s a massive opportunity to go bigger” he says.

He points to beavers – commonly known as a still novel approach to achieving natural flood management outcomes – and says their value really dawned on him on a visit to the river Otter during last summer’s drought when he saw the areas they’d been were holding so much more water in the surrounding land than elsewhere.

He’s keen to sell a positive vision for adaptation, arguing we’re getting there with that on decarbonisation and net zero but we need to invest more in community resilience and ensure people can live with change.

Because he ends with a warning. He points to an Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on the cryosphere which warns a one-in-a-century coastal storm would be an annual event by 2050 under all climate change scenarios.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time working in crisis management, he says the good news is you don’t usually get 30 years’ notice of a crisis arriving. The bad news is humans aren’t wired to deal with those longer-term issues. But he says people used to adapt on the East Coast. The coast has always changed and people have always adapted. After decades of building hard defences that’s something we’ll have to get more used to again.

There are some difficult choices to come, he warns, and says it’s going to need bold politicians to lead a way through those. But listening to communities and really understanding their needs, then working with them to develop the best solutions is how we’ll get through challenges of this magnitude.

You can read the long-form version of this article on our A Fresh Water Future webpage here. You can listen to the Planet Possible podcast of the chat here.

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