Liv Garfield, Severn Trent plc
I am hugely encouraged by the growing debate about how to improve nature generally, and particularly how to improve the natural condition of our rivers.
Analysis by the Environment Agency shows that rivers are now in a better condition than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. Yet significant challenges remain.
We need to tackle the pollution that runs into our rivers from the surrounding land – excess fertiliser, animal waste, run-off from roads, for example. And we need to ensure that investment into our sewage networks keeps pace with population growth, the effects of climate change, and societal expectations.
Together with power stations and farmers, we need to ensure we take only sustainable amounts of water from nature. And we need to ensure native species can move around freely – providing ‘ladders’ for fish to get over weirs, for example – whilst ensuring we protect against intrusion from non-native species.
Historically, a challenge for improving rivers has been ownership: no one organisation has control over all the factors we need to address. I understand the problem. But I also know from recent experience that great progress can be made working in partnership with landowners and other stakeholders.
Water companies should all be seeking to ‘punch above our weight’ to address the problem by making our industry nature positive. And if we are to achieve this collectively, we must address three priorities.
First, we need to ensure our sewage networks deliver world class performance despite the increased loads they face from population growth and climate change. This will require additional investment and greater innovation.
Second, we need to work better with partners to influence the things we have no direct control over. Experience shows we can achieve huge mutual benefits when we work with farmers to prevent run-off pollution. And we could do more working with manufacturers – to develop water-efficient washing machines, to have clearer warning signs not to flush away sewer-blocking pollution-causing wet wipes, to keep the use of single-use plastic to the minimum.
Third, we need to harness the phenomenal power of nature. Planting trees in the right places can help prevent flooding, reduce pollution and give us cleaner air. Planting buffer strips of vegetation along rivers can prevent run-off pollution from entering watercourses. Rejuvenating our urban parks can help capture water and prevent the overload of our sewage networks.
From a slow start, the UK is now in a leading position when it comes to reducing global carbon emissions. The water sector is very much part of this collective effort and has committed to being Net Zero by 2030.
Working together, we can achieve similar success by transforming the health of our nature.