With parts of the UK facing drought after a winter of low rainfall, a new report by WWF finds so much water is being taken out of rivers and groundwater for public supplies and agriculture that the environment and economy is facing critical long-term damage
LONDON: More than 550 bodies of water in England and Wales are being over-abstracted, affecting iconic rivers like the Itchen and urban chalk streams like the Cray, which have seen their flow decrease and turn to trickles, according to new Freedom of Information requests by WWF.
WWF has also warned if too much water continues to be pumped from rivers and streams we will see a decline in some of the UK’s most favourite wildlife, including kingfishers and the water vole - Britain’s fastest-disappearing mammal. A drought could push them to the brink.
Extreme weather caused by climate change, poor river management and over-abstraction of water has led to over half of the chalk streams and nearly a quarter of the rivers in England being at risk of drying out. April was one of the driest months on record, with less than half the average rainfall for the month, indicating that parts of the UK might be heading for a drought. These effects are already being felt across rivers and chalk streams in the UK and are likely to get worse over the next few months and years unless urgent action is taken.
Following previous droughts the UK Government promised to introduce new legislation on abstraction to protect business, households and the environment in England and Wales – however, this has not yet happened. If a severe drought hits the economic damage to the UK is estimated at £1.3 billion per day.
New polling by Populus has revealed that four out of five people believe wildlife has as much of a right to water as people and nearly 70% are worried about the environmental impact of taking water out of rivers. 83% of people think the UK Government should do more to encourage homes and businesses to use less water in order to protect our environment. 69% of people also think the UK Government should restrict the amount of water taken from rivers.
If new legislation is not introduced soon the effects of poor management of water abstractions and dry weather are likely to have devastating consequences for our rivers.
Tanya Steele, CEO of WWF commented:
“The south-east of England received less rainfall over the winter than Menorca. If we have a dry summer our green and pleasant land could become as parched as some of the Mediterranean. This may sound attractive for sun seekers, but in fact it would be disastrous for wildlife. It would mean hundreds of millions of pounds of damage, tens of thousands of fish dying, and serious declines of some of our most loved wetland species.
“But this can be avoided if we update the outdated way we manage the demand on our country’s limited water supplies. We have already seen the impacts of a drought in some place with rivers drying up or running low. As we witness the effects of climate change on our weather, temporary actions simply won’t do. The UK Government must urgently set out an ambitious long-term plan for the environment, including new policies to manage our water resources, a plan to meet our climate change targets and proposals to tackle the illegal wildlife trade and protect our seas.”
Peter King, Project Officer from the Adur Rivers Trust said commented:
“20 years ago you could swim along the Bevern stream, now you can literally walk across it all year round, as the water levels of the River Ouse have really gone down a lot. The problem is that the rivers have been so badly damaged over the past 50 years that they’re now knackered and we are noticing dramatic changes in water levels, which is therefore having a massive impact on the surrounding communities, including local businesses.
“This has had a disastrous effect on the recreation sector, as people are just not interested in the area anymore. As the water levels become less, the tourism becomes less, which is a real problem. Those who visit for canoeing, wildlife and fishing are not visiting anymore.”
Professor Ian Barker, Managing Director of Water Policy International and Expert Advisor on water management to the OECD commented:
“The dry winter and spring this year mean that river flows and groundwater levels are well below average. Wildlife is suffering because too much water is being pumped to satisfy our needs. A second dry winter would lead to a more severe drought with wider impacts.
“Our society and economy depend upon us having reliable sources of water and a healthy environment. As the climate becomes more uncertain and extreme, and demand for water continues to rise, we need to find a better way to manage scarce water resources. But proposals to reform water management have been shelved. Instead of a staged transition to more sustainable allocation and use of water this decision risks more expensive and knee-jerk action in the future.”
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- The River Chess - one of England’s iconic chalk streams, is a vital part of the local community and home to a variety of important wildlife, from the brown trout to the rare water vole.
- However, in April, the Chess only received 14% of expected rainfall; and despite some heavy rain in May and June groundwater levels still continue to decline leaving flows in the Chess very low. Paul Jennings, a local farmer and chairman of the River Chess Association revealed that, “In the last 6 years, the River Chess has been dry 50% of the time and this has had devastating effects on the local people. In September 2015, children at Thomas Harding Primary School were distressed to find 1000s of fish stranded in small pockets of water when the rest of the river dried up. Parents and the local community joined together to try and rescue the fish by collecting them in buckets and moving them downstream”.
- Unfortunately, these efforts were unsuccessful. When the river dried up again a year later - in October 2016 - there were no fish left. Since there have been some flushes of water in the river after rainfall, but this is mainly urban and agricultural run-off bringing with it silt and pollution. Mr. Jennings added that “these are extreme events that we’re seeing, the diversity of our wildlife is going down and it will not recover”.
- River Itchen - Simon Ffennell, a horticulturalist/river keeper, 60 years old has lived on Itchen River his entire life. He said:
- “Having lived on the river for 60 years I have seen very noticeable changes to the River Itchen. The most noticeable for me is the way that the sunny weather in spring combines with the high levels of phosphate and nitrate that is in the river and creates particular algae that is unfortunately smothering the river bed”.
- “The lack of fishing also affects my personal income, especially as abstraction is particularly bad. Depending on what the weather does, things will continue to get steadily worse, which is not good news at all.”
- River Ouse, Sussex, Peter King – Project Officer from Adur Rivers Trust reflects on some of the problems the stream faces in terms of recreation, wildlife and the local community;
- “20 years ago you could swim along the Bevern stream, now you can literally walk across it all year round, as the water levels of the River Ouse have really gone down a lot. The problem is that the rivers have been so badly damaged over the past 50 years that they’re now knackered and we are noticing dramatic changes in water levels, which is therefore having a massive impact on the surrounding communities, including local businesses.
- This has had a disastrous effect on the recreation sector, as people are just not interested in the area anymore. As the water levels become less, the tourism becomes less, which is a real problem. Those who visit for canoeing, wildlife and fishing are not visiting anymore. Recreational use is definitely our biggest concern at the moment in our catchment area, as it is being used less and less which then has a knock on impact and leads to economic loss for the area. A major example of this is the Angling fishing clubs, which have seen a 50% decline in memberships as there are simply no fish in the river to catch.
- Together with this we have also seen a strong decrease in pike and carp populations as these fish like deep water.
- Land and farm owners are constantly abstracting from the river, together with a huge amount of unlicensed abstraction which is hard to regulate and is steadily increasing due to less rainfall. During the last five years this has got a lot worse, as more and more individuals are taking water.
- I fear for the future as this is only going to get worse if nothing is done about it. People see rivers as a resource for themselves instead of seeing the overall landscape scale.”
Spokespeople available for interview:
Lang Banks – Executive Director, Advocacy
Notes to the editor
- WWF’s report “Water for Wildlife” recommends:
- Transposing the Water Framework Directive in full as part of the Great Repeal Bill and establishing mechanisms and sanctions to enforce its implementation and uphold its 2027 deadline after we leave the European Union.
- A new ‘Restoring Sustainable Abstraction scheme’ to take urgent action at the 555 river water bodies where the Environment Agency has proven that abstraction is already damaging the ecology.
- An immediate move to an abstraction licensing regime that links abstraction to availability encourages efficient use and ensures sufficient water for wildlife in every river to prevent future damaging abstraction and secure greater resilience.
- A national strategy to cut water waste – with a third of water taken from the natural environment being, through leaky pipes, losses in treatment and in the home we need plan to ensure every home and business is water efficient, to communicate the value of water with a fairer system of paying for water through universal smart water metering.
- Today, WWF, supported by rivers trusts and angling clubs across the country, are asking the public to take action to help us safeguard our rivers. As part of WWF’s Nature Needs You campaign, we have launched an interactive map where people can find out the state of their local river and send a message to their new MP to ask him or her to put pressure on Michael Gove to:
- Safeguard nature by ensuring European water and environmental directives are transferred into law in England and Wales and mechanisms and sanctions are established to enforce implementation after we leave the European Union.
- Deliver immediate action - before leaving the EU – to ensure that the legal deadline to achieve good ecological status in English and Welsh rivers by 2027 is met.
- Mandate water companies to set out long-term wastewater plans to ensure sewage stops polluting our rivers.
- Empower the environmental regulators to ensure all abstraction is limited to sustainable levels.
- Publish a strong 25 year plan for the environment which includes committing to a Water Act for England and Wales.
- The threats to the UK’s wetland environment are just one example of a growing environmental crisis, with the climate warming, global wildlife populations are set to decline 67% from 1970-2020 according to the Living Planet Report. Without political leadership, none of these problems will be tackled. People want the UK to be a leader on the environment which is why during the General Election which is why WWF is calling on the next Government to champion environmental issues.
- WWF is one of the world’s largest and most respected independent conservation organizations, with over 5 million supporters and a global network active in over 100 countries. WWF's mission is to stop the degradation of the Earth's natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature, by conserving the world's biological diversity, ensuring that the use of renewable natural resources is sustainable, and promoting the reduction of pollution and wasteful consumption. Visit https://wwwf.org.uk for latest news and media resources and follow us on Twitter @wwf_uk.
 Abstraction is the term given to taking water out of rivers for use in homes, businesses and irrigation. Our rivers and their ecosystems are at risk from a range of pressures, but the compounding effects of excessive abstraction are particularly severe. When flows drop and rivers dry pollutants become more concentrated. Rivers slow down and drop sediment. Habitats for fish, insects, animals and plants are reduced and severely altered. Excessive abstraction effectively magnifies any other negative impact on water quality, such as pollution from road run-off; sediment, fertilisers and other pollutants from agriculture; phosphates from sewage.
 http://www.metoffice.gov.uk/news/releases/2017/statistics-for-april-2017 with the latest CEH report stating that the effect of long-term rainfall deficits are evident in low river flows and groundwater levels, which are likely to persist into summer with continuing likelihood of environmental stress and localised pressure on water resources https://www.ceh.ac.uk/news-and-media/news/hydrological-summary-may-2017-uk-may-was-second-warmest-1910
 Last time the UK faced a major drought, in March 2012, the conditions in the UK were similar. River levels were at the same low levels and temperatures reached 23.2 degrees. This could lead to hosepipe bans for families, restrictions on farmers watering crops and significant damage to wildlife. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/weekly-rainfall-and-river-flow-reports-for-england
 Accoding to their website , Affinity Water have “seen below average rainfall in their region, and flows of some rivers have decreased. If the next few months continue with below average rainfall – as predicted by the Met office long range weather forecast – then water resources are expected to be under pressure.” https://www.affinitywater.co.uk/water-resources-2017.aspx
 An analysis by Water UK estimated the additional cost of making the supply of water more resilient to severe drought would be equivalent to about £4 per annum per household, whereas the impact of the economy of inaction would be £1.3 billion per day during the most widespread and severe droughts. Reference: Water UK (2016) Water resources long-term planning framework (2015-2065) [online]. Available at: www.water.org.uk/news-water-uk/latest-news/research-shows-more-action-needed-protect-against-growing-drought-risk [accessed 15 May 2017].
 Many species of fish are particularly vulnerable, especially migratory species such as Atlantic salmon, sea trout, European eel, river lamprey and sea lamprey that struggle to migrate upstream in low flow conditions. Bird species such as common sandpiper and dipper have been shown to suffer when river flows drop, due to the effect it has on their prey – namely invertebrates and small fish (Source: Royan A., Hannah D.M., Reynolds S.J., Noble D.G., Sadler J.P. (2013) Avian Community Responses to Variability in River Hydrology. PLoS ONE 8(12): e83221. A study on the Tewinbury Lagoon, a Site of Special Scientific Interest in Hertfordshire, linked kingfisher numbers to water levels in the lagoon (source: Friends of the River Mimram, 2017).
Water voles, which live on the banks of slow-moving rivers and wetlands, are also vulnerable to declining water levels. It is Britain’s fastest-disappearing mammal, suffering a staggering 90% decline. When flows are reduced, water voles become more vulnerable to predators such as American mink, fox and stoat: they are unable to flee into the water and gain access to their riverbank burrows via underwater entrances. Monitoring by the Suffolk Wildlife Trust shows clear declines in water vole populations when water levels drop (source: Suffolk Wildlife Trust,