HomeNatural environmentHow the UK government can stop the flood-drought seesaw

How the UK government can stop the flood-drought seesaw

This post is by Ali Morse, water policy manager for The Wildlife Trusts

With England experiencing the driest eight month period for over 45 years, and a July heatwave with record breaking temperatures, river flows across the country are low. An official drought has been declared across large parts of England.

Measures such as hosepipe bans have been introduced to limit high volume, non-essential use of water. These can be expected to reduce water usage by up to ten per cent. That might not sound like much, but at a time when water usage is high and supplies low, this amounts to a significant proportion of flows that can be left in-river. This could perhaps help us to avoid the most severe environmental impacts of a drought.

But of course, this is not enough. Even without a drought, nearly a fifth of surface waters, and over a quarter of groundwaters are over-abstracted. This means that rivers and wetlands lack sufficient water to protect the environment and to meet the needs of fish and other aquatic life. A further 5 per cent of surface waters and 15 per cent of groundwaters are subject to licences that, if used in full, could damage the environment. This is not sustainable water management.

Changing when, where and how we extract water
Reforming how we extract water so that we take it from the environment where it is least damaging is one part of the picture. Taking water at a time that is less harmful to the environment is critical too. For example, water companies and farm reservoirs can capture water during high winter flows to see us through drier summer conditions.

Taking less water altogether is also necessary, and a planned target under the Environment Act will help to drive this, requiring a 20 per cent reduction in water extracted per person. To achieve this, fixing leaks is vital. The latest figures showed that in England 2,752.59 million litres were lost to leakage every day, which is around a fifth of that put into supply. Pushing businesses and homes to become more water efficient is crucial too. Businesses use 20 per cent of the water put into supply, while homes use the remaining 60 per cent. Efficient appliances, universal metering to help all users limit their use, and far stricter building regulations so that all new homes are inherently water efficient, could all contribute to reducing water usage. The target would be stronger still if it were an absolute target, rather than being pegged to population, as rising numbers will otherwise allow rising water extraction, to the detriment of the environment.

Even this, however, will not ensure that our rivers are brought back to health. With the pressures of climate change, a growing population, and the inefficiencies of the water sector, there will continue to be a battle for water between public supply, agriculture and the environment. So we need to do more still to support our beleaguered waters.

We need to build back wetter
We have lost 90 per cent of our wetlands in the last 100 years, and so we are a far drier nation now than we once were. Wildlife rich wet meadows, reedbeds, fens, peat bogs, alder carr, and beaver-created wetlands used to be widespread, absorbing winter rains like a sponge and topping up summer’s struggling rivers and their underground aquifers. The ability to hold water in the landscape could help us cope with climatic extremes, whilst now we lurch from flood to drought and back again.

Retaining water in the landscape requires numerous things but there are two key aspects. We need to encourage landowners to create and restore wetlands, as a core contribution towards meeting the Environment Act’s habitat creation target. The Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery tiers of the government’s new Environmental Land Management scheme (ELMs) provide a key opportunity for this. The options and advice available must support landowners in recreating these features, encouraging them to make space for water on their land. This includes providing support for formal beaver management groups that will see a much smoother path to the reintroduction of these vital ecosystem engineers.

Healthier soils can also play an important role in retaining more water. Capturing rainfall should not just be the preserve of wetlands. The soils that underpin the 70 per cent of the landscape which is farmed offer vast potential too. Research shows that 37 per cent of the UK’s water storage already lies in soils, a greater percentage than for waterbodies. Farmers unions recognise the threat that a lack of water poses to crops and livestock, but rather than increase abstraction from already-depleted rivers, we need to look at capturing and holding water in the landscape itself. Even in conventional farm systems, soil aeriation can help to reverse compaction, allowing water to infiltrate and ensuring sufficient soil moisture for germination, crop growth and forage production. Soil standards under the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI) could do more to encourage (or require) such measures. Regenerative agricultural practices, which improve soil structure and increase the content of soil organic matter, may allow soils to hold even more.

The scale of the opportunity will vary geographically according to soil type, weather patterns and hydrological factors, but the opportunity should not be overlooked. And climate change will mean that the adoption of practices that enable improved soil water storage is not just an opportunity, but a necessity. Just as with the conversion to organic, there is an argument for financial support to help farmers make such a transition to more regenerative forms of agriculture.

We must shift our thinking so that water management is considered one of the key ‘public goods’ we provide through public money; this is an accepted argument when it comes to floods, but less so for droughts. For nature, farming and wider society to adapt to water scarcity, it’s in all our interests to hold water in the landscape.

Written by

Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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