Recently it dawned on me that the sad irony contained within A Fresh Water Future and its findings is that there really is nothing fresh in what it says. It has all been said before. Many times.
The fresh thing is perhaps the degree of consensus from both the public and experts that we have to do this – consensus from approaching 5,000 people in all, across the public and professional realms. We have no choice if we want things to get better.
What this irony shows is that we already know how to get there – we know what must be done. So, what exactly are we calling on the next government to do?
After 30 years of privatised water, agricultural intensification, climate change, light-touch regulation and policy drift, we need a full, independent review of water management and regulation.
The review should be commissioned by the Cabinet Office – from the very heart of government – to reflect how central water is to so many aspects of our wellbeing and prosperity.
It’s also vital that the review reports inside its first year, so as to allow time for real action across the remainder of the government’s term in office.
Any review would, by definition, need to look at the regulators: their configuration, powers, duties, capacity and resourcing. While it may be simplistic to pin all regulatory and enforcement challenges on the resources available, practitioners resoundingly pointed at this as a fundamental root cause of today’s problems.
Bigger pressures need stronger regulators to protect an environment that can’t protect itself and that we as a society rely on.
Water companies are well trusted locally, it seems, but mistrusted and resented nationally, having been allowed to evolve in a direction that’s widely disliked.
In our survey, only six per cent of experts backed the current model – and 18 per cent of respondents work for water companies and another big proportion work in their supply chain. That tells you something. If companies can’t change themselves, they’ll need to be helped to change.
Across the board, people’s motivations for working for water companies were those of public and environmental service. These values must be formalised within the heart of water companies’ purpose as clear licence conditions.
There must also be open-book transparency when it comes to reporting, structure and governance, and no more reliance on operators self-monitoring when it comes to wastewater and sewerage.
We need a national environmental-monitoring strategy and programme that properly builds up a picture of what’s causing harm in each and every catchment so that the causes can be tackled in a prioritised, systematic way.
People told us that right now, we’re throwing buckets of cash at some problems and barely monitoring others. There are all kinds of opportunities with AI, machine learning and the like to build upon and enhance, as well as better interrogate, the data sets that we already have.
To enable this targeted and prioritised approach to catchment recovery and resilience, we need beefed-up catchment management. Not a “catchment-based-approach-plus”, but something altogether bigger, with strategic-planning heft and the power to convene all key local and regional stakeholders.
We need to assess and prioritise finance and investment flows across activities such as water-industry environment programmes, natural flood management, catchment management and more.
Existing catchment partnerships can still play a role in engagement and delivery, but we need to embrace a model akin to current regional flood and coastal committees, with an independent chair and the ability to set priorities, balance trade-offs and ensure less-siloed and more efficient use of money on multi-functional solutions.
The public knows all about sewage pollution, but only a third of those we spoke to were aware of farming’s impacts on water. Farming manages most of our landscape and so has enormous potential to deliver better for our water, in terms of flood-risk management, quality and resource.
Respondents said that farmers shouldn’t be immune from the law and wanted more farm inspections and far more concerted enforcement of regulations, but all balanced with expanded delivery of local, context-specific advice – that, crucially, is independent of input-product manufacturers and is backed up by a ratcheting-up of sanctions.
A statutory nutrient-management programme must be developed that requires land managers to test ahead of applications in order to build up a better understanding of crop needs and a move towards understanding the maximum sustainable output of the landscape.
Intensive livestock production – the poor management of which is devastating some of our most treasured river catchments – must be better regulated. Planning policies should prevent these operations where catchments are already nutrient-overloaded, and permitting of the wastes must effectively deal with the manures generated, both on-site and those that are sent off-site.
This should drive a move towards a far more circular-economy approach to phosphorus use in the UK.
For too long – despite regulatory efforts to change the balance – the focus of investment in water infrastructure has been on new capital schemes, rather than maintaining what’s there already. This balance needs to change so that the replacement rate of pipes, sewers and other infrastructure is increased.
Again, AI, digital twins, machine learning and computer models can pinpoint priorities for repair and predict failures before they happen. We need to invest in these systems to unlock the best value and efficiency from what we have, as well as upgrading and building new assets where necessary.
We need to flip the old-school approach to building and apply a “sponge cities” strategy to all of the places we live – both new developments and existing housing. Water can and should be a medium for regeneration, resilience and prosperity, unlocking verdant and healthy places to live that provide resilience in a climate-changed world.
You only have to look at sustainable drainage schemes in places such as Cardiff, Sheffield, Enfield and Mansfield to get a feel for how they can transform not just resilience but the whole look and feel of a place and a community.
This has to become the norm. We need to stop treating rainwater as a waste product and instead treat it as a treasured and respected resource.
The public’s new-found curiosity and concern for water, a result of the current media attention, offers an opportunity to nurture water-smart communities and citizens who can help monitor, maintain and conserve their local water environments because they know more about them and care about them.
Two fundamental building blocks of this are metering and water efficiency. Our polling showed that there’s still considerable willingness to move to a meter; vulnerable customers can be protected.
And while there has been welcome progress on water-efficiency labelling and product standards, the pace of change has generally been glacial and too much of a battle for those great organisations that have made the case for wiser water use.
Alastair Chisholm is CIWEM’s Director of Policy
This story is published in the Spring 2024 issue of The Environment magazine.
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