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.”