Current policy ‘disastrous’ for rivers says think tank

A new report published today (July 4) warns that the over-abstraction of rivers is causing unsustainable pressure on the UK's water resources and is damaging the environment.

The report, from The Policy Exchange, an independent think tank, says the cost of addressing the problem under current arrangements is estimated at between £3.7 billion and £27 billion.

In addition, progress is currently very slow, and at this rate it could take between 45 and 335 years to achieve sustainable levels of abstraction.

This does not take into account future projections of population growth or changes to rainfall patterns.

The report, produced by the Policy Exchange’s Environment and Energy Unit, is authored by Simon Less, a previous director at Ofwat.

The report says: “Many rivers and natural environments are suffering damage on a regular basis as a result of over-abstraction of water.

“Some rivers are drying up completely at certain times, which can be fatal for the wildlife that relies on them.”

“Additional significant water level drops can mean sewage and chemical contaminants become more concentrated, rivers slow down, fill up with sediment and may get warmer, all of which severely affects habitats for fish, insects, animals and plants, sometimes irreversibly.”

There are about 20,000 abstraction licences across England and Wales, with water companies accounting for about half of licensed abstraction volumes.

The other large user groups are the power generation sector and other industrial users. Agriculture accounts for only around 1% of abstraction on average.

Around a third of catchments are already classed as over-abstracted or have too much abstraction licensed, and two thirds of catchments are closed to issuance of new abstraction licences.

The Environment Agency has estimated that on average between 1,100 and 3,300 megalitres more per day is abstracted than the environment can sustain.

The report says that the absence of a sustainable strategy from the Environment Agency is causing major uncertainty for abstractors, which leads to hoarding of existing licensed volumes.

Companies are less able to plan ahead, or enter into new bulk supply arrangements and have less incentive to trade licences.

The report calls for an overhaul of the regulations and the need to incentivise companies to use water more efficiently.

The organisation says the government’s water white paper, expected later in 2011, provides a key opportunity to create reforms to secure environmentally, economically and socially sustainable water.

You can read the full recommendations in the report ‘Untapped Potential: Better protecting rivers at lower cost’ here.

Alison Brown

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