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World Water Day - valuing water for people and nature

On World Water Day, Rhiannon Niven of RSPB and Ali Morse of The Wildlife Trusts reflect on the state of water in England, and the action needed to protect its true value for people and nature.

March 2021

Today marks World Water Day , a useful moment to reflect on the state of water here in England, as well as across the world. This year, the theme is ‘valuing water’. As the United Nations points out, the value of water is about much more than the price that we pay for what comes out of our taps at home. Water has significant value as a vital resource for agriculture, industry, food, culture, education, economics, and the health and wellbeing of people and nature.

The core focus of World Water Day is in support of the Sustainable Development Goal Six: water and sanitation for all by 2030. In England, we are in a privileged position that our domestic water supply arrives uninterrupted and clean to our homes and businesses. Unfortunately, we cannot say the same for our rivers and other waterbodies, which suffer when providing us with those services. Today, 0% of our rivers, lakes and streams are classed as healthy in England, despite a target for all waters to be in good health by 2027.

The shocking state of our waterbodies means that we need the Government to ensure we have the legal commitments, high standards, pollution prevention and funding to turn the tide for our rivers. 

The ‘landmark’ Environment Bill, progressing through Parliament, provides the opportunity to deliver on this aspiration. The Bill’s water chapter covers issues such as wastewater management, abstraction, water quality, and will set targets on wastewater, agricultural pollution, and water demand. However, while these clauses are a good start, they don’t demonstrate a ‘world leading’ approach where water is recognised for its true value (see our concerns in more detail in the Greener UK/Link Environment Bill risk tracker).

In order to secure a clean and plentiful supply of water, as a priority, we want to see:

  • New, strong legally binding targets for water quality under the Environment Bill, setting a goal for clean water status by 2038 that is more ambitious and comprehensive than the existing 2027 target under the Water Framework Directive.
  • Government being more prescriptive about the duties and actions required of water companies, by bringing forward measures proposed in the delayed Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill into the Environment Bill.
  • Amendments introduced to the Environment Bill to ensure Government’s proposed abstraction reforms address unsustainable abstraction as a high priority, reducing the pressure on our precious and unique chalk streams that are currently at risk of dying from a lack of water.
  • Substantial action to reduce water use, including full, universal metering across England, ideally using smart meters. Customer awareness and value of water is key to reducing consumption - surveys commissioned by Waterwise and Water UK in summer 2020 showed that 46% of people think their entire household uses less than 20 litres of water a day. The real figure is around 143 litres per person.

Urgent action is needed to improve freshwater quality if the government hopes to achieve its goal of halting the decline of habitats and species by 2030. Unless ambitious changes are made, the measures in the Environment Bill are unlikely to deliver anywhere near the scale and pace of change needed to improve our water quality. We must safeguard our water supplies, so that nature and people can all share in its true value.

Rhiannon Niven is Senior Policy Officer (Water) at RSPB. Ali Morse is Water Policy Manager at The Wildlife Trusts.

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