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Page last updated at 23:55 GMT, Sunday, 18 September 2011 00:55 UK
Quarter of England's rivers at risk

River Kennet

In a country famous for its rainfall - even Paddington Bear arrived with his waterproofs - the idea of rivers running dry is hard to fathom.

Despite what may have felt like a cold, wet summer, the reality is that in the south-east of England there is less water per person than in Morocco or Egypt.

Parts of five counties are still officially in drought.

Most of the 13 trillion litres of water that we take from the environment each year come from rivers and as consumers we are all using 15% more water than we did 25 years ago.

The Environment Agency (EA) warns that most rivers in England and Wales are at the limit of what can be sustainably taken from them. Nearly a quarter of rivers are at risk because too much water either is or can be taken from them.

Rivers, and in some cases the vast underground aquifers which feed them, are being tapped by water companies, industry and agriculture to meet demand, leaving some of our rivers short-changed and their delicate ecosystems and wildlife, including fish, water voles and insects, in danger.

'Our rainforest'

Charlotte Hitchmough of the group Action for the River Kennet, parts of which are under threat in Wiltshire, said Britain's rivers are unique - with just a few others in existence in parts of France - and deserve protection.

"This is like our rainforest," she said of the River Kennet which is one of the UK's 161 chalk streams. "They're ours to look after, you know if we don't look after them, nobody else will."

Thames Water has a licence to take up to 13,000 cubic metres - or the equivalent of five Olympic sized swimming pools - from the River Kennet aquifer every day.

Water Facts
UK-wide 13 trillion litres of water taken from environment every year
One quarter of rivers in England at risk
Average person uses 150 litres of water a day
South-east England has less water per person than Morocco or Egypt

Simon Less, head of environment for the Policy Exchange think tank, said water companies have worked to deliver water by the cheapest way possible, which has been good for consumers.

"But it is becoming more important that they also take into account environmental damage of the sources," he added of the long term impact of water policy.

In a bid to keep London's taps flowing in the event of an emergency, Thames Water last year opened a £270m desalination plant that turns sea water into drinking water, capable of delivering up to 140 million litres of water to 400,000 homes in a drought.

In total, the EA manages 21,000 licences to take water from Britain's rivers and acknowledges that permissions granted decades ago are now putting pressure on the rivers.

Trevor Bishop of the EA said: "Climate change is highly likely to mean a drier, warmer climate that pushes demands up and it will probably reduce the amount of water available in rivers. So there is going to be a mismatch between how much water is available and how much society and the economy needs."

The EA has begun to renegotiate the licences where rivers are at risk of serious damage, but they say it will take time and money to help water companies find alternative sources.

Use less

Critics say water companies have not done enough to encourage conservation or invested in finding and fixing water leaks.

Otter with fish
On the River Wensum in Norfolk, wildlife habitat is at risk

Policy Exchange's Simon Less said the water companies prefer to build new infrastructure such as reservoirs or desalination plants, because a profit can be made on what they build. This financial incentive dates back to the late 1980s when the water industry was privatised.

Richard Aylard of Thames Water said every consideration, beyond commercial interest, is taken into account when decisions are made on sourcing water.

"It does not matter how the funding works, what matters is the plan that we put forward has to be the best deal for the customers and the environment."

Ofwat, the industry regulator, said the water companies have invested heavily in badly needed infrastructure upgrades since privatisation in 1989 but that it was time to investigate new ways to encourage the most sustainable water supply possible.

The government also wants individuals to take on a greater role in preserving the nation's water by reducing daily usage from the current 150 litres a day to 130.

Panorama: Drinking Our Rivers Dry? BBC One, Monday, 19 September at 2030BST and then available in the UK on the BBC iPlayer .


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