Natural ignorance

Efforts to increase understanding of biodiversity and its protection are rich and various. Yet, says Barrie Clarke of Water UK, there is a failure to bridge the gap between sentiment and science

Whither biodiversity? It sounds like one more arcane technical enquiry. In fact, it is a perfectly serious question. If we are to act urgently to meet targets (and we are), we can reasonably ask if the loss of biodiversity threatens our very existence or just our favourite retreats from city life.

In one sense, it is academic. Working towards compliance with the habitats directive and healthy sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) is both a legal requirement and stakeholder expectation for water companies. Yet, if there is extra cost (and there is), then accessible answers are needed - answers that satisfy hard-pressed customers and narrow-eyed investors.

At present, the pitch for bugs and bats and wild flowers seems to rest on our famous love of animals or our desire to escape the dark satanic mills. Gentle Bill Oddie has us enthralled. The dead donkey is seldom dropped. Even Relocation, Relocation plays its part. Every little helps. But appreciation of the richness and variety of the living world seems undeveloped - as does awareness of the connections on which apparently every form of life depends.

Envy of the world
This is strange. Official and civil society efforts to increase understanding and protection are themselves rich and various. We have a bewildering array of designated areas that English Nature (EN) says is the "envy of the world". We have special areas of conservation, special protection areas, Ramsar sites, Natura 2000 sites, other SSSIs and national nature reserves. We have a farrago of biodiversity action plans. We have the RSPB, National Trust, Wildlife Trusts and others with millions of supporters, many presumably with an interest beyond the visitor centre.

Yet, it is hard to see many of us bridging the gap between sentiment and science and believing that biodiversity loss is as important as, for example, climate change. Hence our original question. The European Commission openly equates the two. Among its priorities for 2006, we find "preserving biological diversity - the variety of genes, species and ecosystems that together form the web of life - is, like climate change, a pressing global challenge". Is this right? We do need to know.

Perhaps environmentalists take it for granted but don't want to scare us. Campaigning wisdom these days is that positive messages work better than gloom (and they do). To be fair, government is raising its game. Last month EN published Target 2010, a full report on SSSIs in England. In the past two years, the number of sites "in target condition" rose by 11.5% to nearly 70%. Some questioned the data, probably with justice, but the work is an achievement and a strong legacy to Natural England, the successor body. Somehow though the kernel - the context in which biodiversity assumes its full meaning - is still missing. There is quite a lot about economic value and "these wonderful and special places". If it was worth promoting these benefits (and it was) it was also worth going a bit further into the science.

Recognising importance
Water companies recognise the importance of biodiversity. Many include it in annual sustainable development reports. It is one of Water UK's sustainability indicators. Companies work with stakeholders throughout their communities on projects to support designated sites. There are many successes. Otters return to rivers in many regions. Wildlife officers are appointed in the Water for Wildlife partnership. There is innovative industry research on reducing diffuse pollution of the water environment.

And there is progress towards SSSI targets being made, as EN accepts. But the industry knows there is more to do, and will make every effort within tight financial constraints. With many calls on revenue, the case for biodiversity can seem low in the pecking order. Estimates of the cost of bringing all sites up to target vary but it is certainly millions of pounds. To date, few projects have been funded. A big issue is that the "remedies" officially identified are often not in the control of the company. Another is that, despite EN confidence, there is uncertainty about what delivers best value. Making the case would be easier if the truth about the web of life were better spun.

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