Page last updated at 21:38 GMT, Wednesday, 8 October 2008 22:38 UK

Water policy 'failing to deliver'

By Mark Kinver
Science and environment reporter, BBC News

Field acting as a natural water storage area (Image: NTPL/Simon Fraser)
Using upland grazing fields to regulate water flow is one possible solution

The UK's current water policy will fail to cope with extreme weather events that are projected to affect the nation in the future, a report has warned.

A study by the National Trust said the prospect of more frequent droughts and floods meant an urgent rethink was needed to update existing measures.

Paying farmers to restore wetlands or using land to store water were among the ideas suggested by the authors.

They added that an integrated "source to sea" strategy was urgently needed.

"For too long we've taken water for granted," said Fiona Reynolds, the Trust's director general.

"We ignore its importance and its potential to impact on all our lives at our peril," she added.

"We are now dealing with a legacy of water mismanagement and misuse of its apparent plentiful supply.

"It is vital that landowners, farmers, the water industry, the government and its agencies come together and work with natural processes to safeguard water from source to sea."

'Too much, too little'

The authors called for funding to be used more effectively, and outlined a five-point action plan to update the current strategy.

"There is significant potential for measures to pay farmers and land managers for providing 'water services'," the authors wrote.

These services included storage of water on flood plains, wetland restoration and the use of "buffer strips" to reduce pollution.

"Such measures also have other benefits, including carbon storage, boosts to wildlife and landscape benefits, and are often cheaper than 'end-of-pipe' solutions," they added.

"We cannot continue to take water for granted. Climate change means we'll increasingly have too much of it in some places, and too little in others."

One of the projects featured in the report looked at innovative ways to manage the landscape at Upper Wharfedale in the Yorkshire Dales.

River Wharfe (Image: National Trust Photo Library)
One project examined ways to reduce sediment being carried downstream

The goal of the project was to alleviate problems, such as flooding further downstream.

"Much of our traditional approach to water management, certainly when it comes to rivers, had a very local focus," explained Stuart Lane, director of the Institute of Hazard and Risk Research at Durham University.

"For example, if there was a river that was filling up with sediment, the decision was taken to dredge the river to remove the sediment build-up.

"What we recognised very early on was that what was really causing these problems was what was happening in the wider landscape.

"If we could manage what was happening in the wider landscape then we could allow our rivers to work much more sustainably without having to continually intervene," he told BBC News.

Professor Lane, who has been involved in the Upper Wharfedale project for about nine years, said that the area had experienced deforestation over the centuries, which had changed the dynamics of the upland landscape.

"One of the things that we showed within our project was to what extent that land-use change had increased the deliver of sediment to the river system," he said.

The researchers used a computer model to simulate the impact of localised planting of native woodlands in the river's smaller tributaries.

"We showed that this could reduce the amount of sediment being transported into the river by an order of magnitude sufficient to prevent the river downstream being continually dredged."

Another measure involved relocating a section of floodbank so the river could move more freely within the floodplain.

Local knowledge

The report also called on the government to improve the way it communicated the risks of droughts and floods.

How do you persuade local communities to believe what scientists like myself are saying is actually worth doing?
Professor Stuart Lane,
Durham University

"There is a need to raise general awareness and facilitate practical adaptation by promoting actions that people can take in everyday life," it recommended.

Professor Lane added that policy-makers had failed to understand how rural communities worked, and what was the best way to deliver change on the ground.

"How do you persuade local communities to believe what scientists like myself are saying is actually worth doing?"

He used the example of upland drainage systems, which saw thousands of kilometres of drains, also known as grips, being installed in the years after World War II.

"These areas were drained in order to give us more productive agricultural land. Now, 40 years on, we are telling them to block their grips.

"So when you consider what people must think, when they were told until the late 1970s that they had to drain their land only to be told to reverse all of their effort and block the drains.

"Their first question is going to be: are we going to tell them to put their drains back in again in 30 or 40 years time?"

"So it is not just an economic question, it is also about encouraging local communities to believe what is being talked about is necessary."

Currently, about 10% of the sites owned by the Trust are located in areas deemed to be at very high risk of flash flooding.

But by 2050, it said that more than one third of its sites were likely to be affected by either floods or droughts.

Flooding budget 'badly handled'
04 Sep 08 |  UK Politics
'Decades' of low rainfall ahead
02 Aug 05 |  England

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