Panorama reveals a quarter of UK’s rivers are under threat

Thames Water was put under the spotlight last night (September 19) by BBC investigative series Panorama, which explored the issue of water scarcity in the UK and the effects water abstraction has on rivers.

According to Panorama, which aired ‘Drinking the rivers dry’ at 8.30pm on BBC 1, water companies are relying too heavily on water from the UK’s rivers, causing damage to wildlife and the local environment as most of the UK’s rivers are already at a limit of what can be sustainability abstracted.

The programme focused on the UK’s largest water supplier Thames Water and the River Kennet, which links Bristol and London, and serves Swindon.

It found that on average 10 million cubic metres (cum) a day is taken from the River Kennet by Thames Water, which has a licence to take up to 13,000 cum a day – the equivalent of five Olympic sized swimming pools – from an aquifer under Axford to serve customers in Swindon. In comparison, just 13 cubic metres of water was taken a day from the Kennet when abstraction began in the 1960s.

As a result of water abstraction by Thames Water, between 6Mld and 7Mld of water is lost to the river as the treated water is not returned the Kennet, but rather to the River Ray, an offshoot of the Thames.

The Environment Agency (EA) has warned that the volume of water taken from the UK’s rivers each day is damaging to the local environment and wildlife, and that nearly a quarter of rivers are now at risk.

Research by the Policy Exchange in July 2011 revealed that 33% of water catchment areas are either already over abstracted, or are in danger of becoming so, if water companies remove the full amount of licensed water.

It also found, on average between 1,100 and 3,300 mega litres more water is taken by water companies than the environment can sustain.

Policy Exchange think tank head of environment, Simon Less, who featured in last night’s programme, told edieWater that pressure has been put on rivers by water companies as they have looked for methods of delivering water as cheaply as possible, and that the government must tackle the issue by reviewing water abstraction licenses.

Mr Less said: “Water companies need to focus on identifying innovation and cost-effective solutions to matching future demand and supply with reduced abstraction rights; and customers need to expect to pay according to the water they use, with meters.

“To tackle the damage to rivers being caused by over-abstraction action is needed by a range of actors. The government needs to commit to a timescale for addressing the problem of crude and over-allocated abstraction licenses.”

He also advised that the EA use its abstraction charges in a “more sophisticated way to disincentivise damaging abstraction”, while Ofwat should “tackle the regulatory system’s biases in favour of capital supply infrastructure and against trading and demand reduction.”

In response, Thames Water sustainability director, Richard Aylard, woho also featured in the Panorama Programmem, said the water company has already begun £10m pipe replacement work to reduce Swindon’s reliance on the Kennet. As part of the works, water will instead be taken from the River Thames at the Farmoor Reservoir.

It is also working on a scheme in partnership with the EA to help protect the chalk stream environment of the River Kennet.

Mr Aylard said: “We agree with environmental groups, including Action for the River Kennet (ARK), that we must reduce south Swindon’s reliance on water from the Kennet in order to safeguard this important chalk stream, and we are working with the Environment Agency on a scheme to do that.

“Meanwhile we have to balance our duty to deliver the water our customers need against our duty to protect the environment on which our core business depends.”

Carys Matthews

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