Persuading politicians to form any kind of coherent, long-term policy is not exactly easy. One issue which needs tackling – and badly – is the long-overdue one of a proper water strategy.
The weather events of recent years have highlighted the fact that the UK has no joined-up water strategy. Such a strategy would of course need to be a long-term and joined-up. It would therefore attract few votes in the way that short-term, ‘quick fix’ policies might. Nevertheless it is essential that government takes the problem seriously, because it is an area which affects both the environment and human needs. If not tackled, politicians will one day regret they did nothing…
I have set out below my view of the situation, and of the kind of policy which needs to be followed, in the form of a submission to government. If you would like to submit something of your own, please feel free to draw on the following:
Submission to Government
My credentials: I am a lifelong angler as well as a member, volunteer and Ambassador for the Angling Trust. I have witnessed first-hand the devastating effect which the lack of a proper water policy had had on UK rivers, and as a result on fish and other wildlife.
Subject: water policy
To: the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment
Cc: Your MP
Experts are now virtually in agreement that our climate is changing. In broad terms, this means rising temperatures, greater evaporation from the earth’s surface and hence increased precipitation and more frequent flooding. It also implies more frequent and longer periods of drought.
Massive amounts of rain in the winter of 2013-14 produced spectacular flooding in many parts of the country. It highlighted the folly of building on or near flood plains, and also the futility of farming such areas. The long drought of 2010-12 highlighted the dire state of the UK’s water reserves.
Flooding produced a knee-jerk reaction from the general public, the media and certain politicians that a return to the discredited, widespread, environmentally destructive, and extremely expensive practice of dredging of rivers was required.
Few if any commentators saw massive the deluge of rain falling in a short time as in any way a blessing. Given also the likelihood of regular, more frequent droughts in a warming world, the arrival of abundant water at a given time could, and should, be seen as an opportunity to hold back, store and use what is now a precious resource.
As things stand, vast quantities of water are channelled directly into streams and rivers, and directed into the sea in short order. The idea that this already artificially accelerated draining process should be further speeded up seems nonsensical when seen in context.
In current practice, water companies abstract water from rivers and sell it to the domestic, industrial and agricultural consumer. Many, if not most, UK rivers are now over-abstracted, and a crisis point has been reached. There are many anomalies in the system as it stands. Water companies can for example demand compensation from government if they agree not to abstract water from chalk streams, which needs very little processing to be fit for drinking. Many abstraction licences are no longer realistic given the way some rivers have shrunk, and are badly in need of overhaul.
As I write this, many parts of the UK find themselves in the midst of a prolonged heatwave and drought, although this has not officially been declared yet. Official declaration would bring with it hosepipe bans and the strong possibility of water rationing.
Farmers have been granted ‘flexible abstraction licensing’ to allow them to take water for crops and livestock from already depleted rivers.
Few politicians appear to understand the need for more rational water management. The famous pronouncement by a former Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, that ‘the purpose of waterways is to get rid of water’ is nonsensical, when seen in the context of water management. Why get rid of water, when the likelihood is that there is a drought ahead? Caroline Spellman’s frank admission on air during the 2010-12 drought that there was no drought plan, let alone a long-term drought strategy, was as depressing as it was disarming.
Nothing has really changed much, it seems, since the 1976 ‘drought minister’, Denis Howell, limply urged us to ‘save water – bath with a friend’.
The aims of an effective water strategy should be (a) to ensure adequate water for industrial, agricultural and domestic use, (b) to protect the environment, and (c) to manage the effects of flooding and drought. I believe that these aims are achievable without great expense or the need for costly large-scale solutions.
It is vital that this and future governments:
- Encourage the development of simple, inexpensive means of storage of rainwater for agricultural and domestic use.
- Introduce universal domestic water metering of utility water, and encourage the population in more disciplined, enlightened and effective use of water
- Ensure that concreted areas in new developments are made porous, and make retro-adaptation of existing areas of concrete mandatory to allow rainwater to find its way into the water table
- Encourage the ending of farming practices which cause the washing of soil and silt into rivers and other watercourses
- Encourage the suitable planting of trees in upland areas by watercourses in order to slow down the progress of surface water
- Encourage schemes which re-connect rivers with their flood plains
- Set in motion the modernisation and reform of abstraction policy
- Impose an effective ban on flood plain development, and assist existing inhabitants of flood-prone areas to relocate
Simple, effective and cheap rainwater collection methods are already in use in parts of the developing world. There is no reason for the developed world not to make use of them. Water so collected can be used for domestic washing and garden irrigation, the latter being an activity which places heavy demands on utility water supplies.
These simple methods will help to obviate the need for such labour- and cost intensive schemes as pipelining water over great distances, and also the building of dams and reservoirs: such schemes are of course hugely expensive and themselves likely to trigger further environmental problems. Large open reservoirs involve an immense volume and surface area of water which will inevitably add to evaporation in a warming climate, involving the escape of huge amounts of water into an atmosphere already laden with moisture.
Ground water is equally important as visible water at the surface. Areas which are concreted over and hence made impervious should contain enough sink-holes at regular intervals to channel rainwater into the soil and replenish the water table, such that built-up areas behave as nearly as possible like open land. Existing areas of concrete tend to cause rainwater to run off in a sudden surge into the nearest watercourses. With the expansion of towns and cities, the areas of solid concrete which go with this are now a major cause of urban flooding.
The farming lobby has over past decades worked to make sure that arable land has been drained to allow crops to be grown. Rivers and other watercourses have been treated as little more than drainage ditches to carry away unwanted water. Farming practices which involve the compacting of soil by heavy machinery have caused surface water, along with large quantities of silt to run off directly into rivers. In order to correct this situation, government should incentivise farming methods which allow water to find its way downwards into the soil, rather than being channelled sideways.
Wherever possible, the aim should be to reconnect rivers with their floodplains. A functioning floodplain Is an effective means of storing and moving floodwater. It will counteract the tendency of dredged, canalised rivers which are disconnected from their flood plains to transport huge amounts of floodwater within a very short time, often causing devastation in downstream urban areas. A flood plain will also allow groundwater – also an important source of water for human needs – to replenish, and also give greater biodiversity, although farming will need to adapt to new circumstances.
The last spell of flooding the UK experienced highlighted the plight in human terms of those resident in flood-prone areas, with a specific concentration by the media and politicians on the Somerset Levels.
Whilst we naturally think of the situation of those striving to exist on flood plains with sympathy, there is in the long term no realistic option for those people but to move away. No amount of dredging of rivers on the Somerset Levels will alter the fact that the area is below sea level, floods virtually every winter, and is a hostile environment for traditional forms of agriculture. The easiest and cheapest solution would be to fund the re-location of the local population.
And idyllic as a home close by the lower Thames may seem, the fact needs to be faced that flooding there will become an increasingly regular occurrence. A future government should strongly consider withdrawing the current guarantee of insurance cover for buildings sited in flood-prone areas, thus removing what has effectively been the subsidising of flood plain development. This will clearly not win many votes in the short term. This does not change the need for policy changes, however.
As for new housing, it is imperative that new developments on flood plains are subject to a total ban. As things stand, the Environment Agency has advisory powers only, and is frequently overruled when it attempts to prevent such developments.
Rod began fishing in his local park lake at the age of twelve, and from there he graduated to chub and roach from the river Tees in North Yorkshire. He now lives in Surrey within striking distance of the river Mole, as well as the Medway and the Eden in Kent and does a lot of surface carp fishing on small waters in the area. Latterly he has enjoyed winter fishing on the Test in Hampshire. He has contributed numerous articles on various angling subjects and personalities to ‘Waterlog’ magazine, as well as many posts on environmental and political subjects in support of the work of the Angling Trust on the ‘Fishing Magic’ website (www.fishingmagic.com)
He remains a passionate angler as well as a member of, Ambassador for, and promoter of the Angling Trust; do join him as a valued member.
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