WWF UK Blog  

Water – why should we value it?


Water. It falls from clouds, it collects in rivers and lakes, we use it, it gets taken away, cleaned up and put back into rivers to go to into the sea, evaporates, joins with dust to form clouds, then the process starts again. (Broadly speaking.)

River Thames and the Houses of Parliament.The River Thames and the Houses of Parliament. © Addison Berry

So what is the problem and why is WWF concerned about it in the UK?

We have a lot of water here in Britain. We are surrounded by it and – a common topic of conversation – we get a fair amount of rain.

Some of our best loved literature references our beautiful rivers and our chalk streams – Wind in the Willows, Swallows and Amazons, Three Men in a Boat…

Yet today our rivers are under strain for a number of reasons – not least population growth, increases in personal use and, to be blunt, poor management.

We – and when I say ‘we’ I mean everyone: consumers, companies, government and so on – don’t appreciate how much water we use at home, or for farming and industry. And we don’t appreciate the impact of that use when all added together across the country – this is one area where we actually are ‘all in this together’.

A partially frozen river in the Lake District.A partially frozen river in Easedale near Grasmere in the Lake District. © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

Currently we pay for our water being supplied and taken away – but not for the water itself. Water isn’t seen as a finite resource, but as something that is in abundance – understandable, as we turn on a tap and water pours out.

Until I worked here I assumed pretty that much all our water came from reservoirs – not our rivers.

Years of taking too much out of our rivers has left them in a poor state, and in some cases it has meant there’s not enough in the rivers to keep them flowing. The River Beane in Hertfordshire, for example, disappears in places for much of the year now.

There must be a better way to supply water that doesn’t involve depleting our rivers and wildlife. The River Beane may be an extreme case – but one that may become more common if we continue to use our water at the current rate.

So, what is the government doing about it? In July the government published a new Water Bill – something that traditionally happens every ten years or so. Before the bill, the government released its Water White Paper. This White Paper placed a value on the environment, talked about reforming the water industry and the old licensing system.

The current system means that 1 in 5 licenses don’t include any consideration of the environment.

Safe to say, we liked this White Paper. We particularly liked the focus that was put on the need to ensure that the water industry provides for customers and protects the environment – today and in the longer term – by addressing the challenges of climate change and population growth.

The redrafted Water Bill does not include much of the good stuff. Instead it focuses on opening up competition in the water sector. It talks about allowing licence holders that haven’t maxed out their water allotment to take even more and sell it. It doesn’t put sufficient safeguards on protecting our rivers. We fear that this will put more strain on our already struggling rivers.

Children's playground surrounded by flood water.Tewkesbury Abbey and a children’s playground surrounded by flood water. © Global Warming Images / WWF-Canon

The UK is increasingly experiencing wild weather – from drought to heavy rainfall and flash floods. Whether we choose to accept it or not, change is coming. We must learn to adapt. Water is a natural resource and a national asset, yet we don’t value it.

If we don’t do anything the outcome will be decided for us – but that’s an outcome everyone would rather avoid.

The Water bill is an opportunity for us all to fix this. To have a process in place that lets our rivers run freely, and for us all to have enough water.

We want the government to give the country the water laws it needs. We want a water bill that will allow the country to:

  1. withstand the impacts of climate change
  2. protect our rivers
  3. supply affordable, clean water.

To do this the following changes need to be made:

  • Ofwat, the regulator of the water industry, should be required to ensure the sustainability the supply of water in the long term – and that this supply does not damage the environment. This requirement – along with affordability – should be a core duty.
  • We all need to value water more, reduce the amount we use and the amount we waste. This’ll be a tough one. Water demand needs to be managed so that those who use more, pay more. And to do this, we’d like to see everyone have water meters. Not only does this mean a fairer system for all, it encourages people to reduce their consumption without creating a massive jump in bills. Contrary to popular belief, most of the time meters reduce bills.
  • It’s time to bring the current 1960s’ system of taking water our of the rivers – aka abstraction – into the 21st century. These licences were granted over half a century ago with no consideration of the environment, and no idea of future demands and use. Future licences need to reflect the current needs, be ready for changes in the future and ensure that our environment will not be damaged.

We’ll be working with politicians and our partners to try and achieve these changes to the bill. We know this won’t be easy to do, but it is essential to protect our beautiful countryside and unique chalkstreams.

Water is essential for life, for living, for everything – so let’s start appreciating it.

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