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IWater | ‘Think Like a River’ – Institute of Water Environment Conference Review

Professor Ian Barker CEnv HonFSE FIWater reflects on the IWater's recent Conference and issues a rallying call for action to help improve our waters.

If you could ask a river what it thinks about what the human race is doing to it the answer is likely to be pretty damning.

Original source: IWater

Every river in England is polluted and fails on chemical standards. Those in the rest of the UK are a little better, but not by much. Only a tiny fraction of our rivers flow unimpeded: the overwhelming majority are interrupted by dams, weirs or locks for navigation. River channels are straightened, funnelled between flood banks or encased into concrete culverts. So it’s no wonder that even the most important rivers designated for nature conservation are suffering. In England, 89.7% of all riverine SSSIs are in unfavourable status. In Wales it’s 60%, and 36% in Northern Ireland. Across the UK we’ve lost 90% of our wetland habitats over the past 100 years.

At the Institute of Water’s Environment Conference (“Cry me a river”) at the end of May we heard why our freshwater environment is in such a poor state. Sewage pollution coats river beds in fungus, adds nutrients that cause algal blooms (pictured) in some of our most iconic rivers, and inputs pathogens that can affect the health of swimmers and canoeists.

Uncontrolled runoff from roads and urban areas discharges a cocktail of pollutants which damage aquatic ecosystems. Abandoned mines spill acidic water laden with iron and heavy metals. And phosphorus from agriculture, derived from fertilisers as well as animal manures, can have an impact that lasts decades because of the way in which it behaves in the natural environment, creating a legacy effect and transferring impact over a wide area. Excessive abstraction is drying up chalk streams, a globally rare habitat of which some 80% are in England. And then there’s the impact of climate change, affecting river flows and temperatures…

Leading national and international academics and practitioners painted a sorry picture to delegates. But to set the scene, and lend weight to their specialist expertise, the conference opened with an authoritative overview from the Rt Hon Philip Dunne, MP for Ludlow and Chair of the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee. In conversation with Kirsty Ayres, an IWater young professional, Philip set out the stark conclusions from the EAC’s inquiry into river water quality. The report is a sobering read.

It would be tempting to conclude that what we are facing is a series of technical challenges that we can address through technical solutions, and so halt and reverse the decline.  But that’s the simplistic approach which, time and again, has been tried and has failed to do much more than maintain the status quo. So what do we need to do?

The answer came from Dr Dave Tickner, Chief Adviser on rivers at the WWF. Dave advocated that we should ‘think like a river’ and equip professionals to understand the multiple stressors that rivers are subjected to – and to understand that the mistake is to focus on just one. And that we need to think and act at a catchment scale, focusing on the long term recovery of the whole river system.

The chances are that what I’ve described above is resonating with you as a water professional. But not everybody shares our values, and so we need to learn how to tell a story that others will understand, and then want to be part of. Dr Mike Keil from the Consumer Council for Water explained that their research shows that people do care about the water environment, and have high expectations for it. But the technocratic approach often adopted by colleagues in the water sector doesn’t allow us to engage readily with consumers.

We need to develop skills beyond purely technical ones and learn how to join things up, and tell a good story. Because what we have is a great story; we just need to work to ensure that it has a happy ending. Or the generations that follow us will think we were fools.

Professor Ian Barker CEnv HonFSE FIWater

Vice President Environment

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