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Sound and independent information
on the environment

United Kingdom

Freshwater (United Kingdom)

Why should we care about this issue

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 23 Nov 2010

We’ve come to expect some of the highest quality water in the world, and an almost endless supply. However, the more we use the less there is for the countryside and the wildlife around us.

Much of the water we use is disposed of through sewers. We demand safe bathing water and good public health, so we clean sewage to high standards. But along with direct pollution, for example from agriculture, sewer discharges continue to cause problems for the natural environment of our rivers, lakes and seas.

Water also has profound aesthetic and cultural appeal across the UK. For example, the rivers, lakes and the bathing waters along the Welsh coast, the lochs of Scotland and loughs of Northern Ireland provide a habitat for wildlife and a focus for tourism.

Because of our need to adapt to climate change, our water intensive lifestyle, and other pressures such as changing land use, we need to find ways of using water much more efficiently and sustainably if we are to continue to enjoy high standards and constant supply. The drought in the South East region of England in 2004-06 and the floods of 2007 brought into focus the pressures we know climate change will bring.

Flooding causes significant economic, social and environmental damage. It is estimated that flooding costs the UK, on average, £1 billion a year in damages as well as causing social disruption with destroyed infrastructure, health implications and negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity. The probability and severity of flooding is likely to increase in the future due to climate change and human actions.

The state and impacts

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Water quality

River water quality has historically been measured using the General Quality Assessment (GQA) classification in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, giving long term, separate measures of biological and chemical quality. In Scotland, results were based on the Digitised River Network (DRN), giving one overall measure. Results and further information are published as one of the UK’s 68 indicators of sustainable development, and are presented below.

 

Figure 1: Biological river water quality, United Kingdom, 1990 - 2009

Figure 1: Biological river water quality, United Kingdom, 1990 - 2009

 

Figure 2: Chemical river water quality, United Kingdom, 1990 - 2009

Figure 2: Chemical river water quality, United Kingdom, 1990 - 2009

 

The Water Framework Directive has brought about a new method of assessment which requires the classification of all water bodies as part of the River Basin Management Planning process, and resources have been diverted to this away from the GQA monitoring networks. 

In December 2009, River Basin Management Plans were published for river basin districts in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Classification results for each country are provided below:

 

Percentage of water bodies classified as Good overall status1, 2008


 

England

Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland


Rivers

25

29

56

20


Lakes

35

39

66

27


Estuaries

8

29

85

0


Coasts

35

67

94

40


All surface waters

26

31

64

21


Groundwater

38

69

76

97


All waters

26

32

65

28


Notes:

 

 

 

 


1.  Figures include 'overall potential' where water bodies are artificial or heavily modified. Some water bodies will never achieve good overall status because they have been physically altered for a specific use, such as navigation, recreation, water storage or flood protection. Overall potential is based on the quality that can be achieved given a water bodies changed conditions. Bottom of Form






 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Water abstraction and use

 

The UK receives an average of 265 billion cubic metres of precipitation each year, of which around 60 per cent runs off to rivers and groundwater where it is available for public supply or direct abstraction (Figure 3). UK rainfall varies geographically – the Anglian region, for example, receives on average less than half that of either Scotland or Wales.

   

Figure 3: Long term average rainfall (left-hand scale) and runoff (right-hand scale)

Figure 3: Long term average rainfall (left-hand scale) and runoff (right-hand scale)

 

Each year more than 14 billion cubic metres of water are abstracted from UK freshwater sources, of which 12.4 billion are abstracted in England and Wales. About half of all abstraction is taken by the public water supply and the remainder by agriculture (including spray irrigation), fish farming, industry and electricity generation. Approximately one third of the public supply is abstracted for non-household use.

Overall the Water Exploitation Index for the UK is 5 per cent.

 

Flooding

 

In England, around 5.2 million properties, or one in six, are at risk of flooding. Of these, 2.4 million properties are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea and a further 2.8 million properties from surface water.

In Scotland, around 100,000 properties, or one in 25, are at risk of flooding from rivers or the sea. There are no reliable figures for the number of properties at risk from surface water.

In Wales around 375,000 properties, around one in six, are at risk to flooding. Of these, 220,000 properties are at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea in Wales, with around 97,000 of these properties also susceptible to surface water, and a further 137,000 properties susceptible to surface water flooding alone.

In Northern Ireland approximately 46,000 properties, around one in eighteen, are at risk of flooding from rivers and the sea. There are no reliable figures for the number of properties at risk from surface water.

There is also significant risk to national energy, water, communications and transport infrastructure and basic public services such as schools and hospitals (Figures 4 and 5).

 

Figure 4: National transport and utilities infrastructure assets in flood risk areas

Figure 4: National transport and utilities infrastructure assets in flood risk areas

Source: Flooding in England (2009), Environment Agency

 

Figure 5: National transport and utilities infrastructure assets in flood risk areas

Figure 5: National transport and utilities infrastructure assets in flood risk areas

 

Source: Flooding in Wales (2009), Environment Agency

 

Human health can also be extremely affected both in the short term with diseases spread by contaminated floodwater, and in the long term with victims experiencing mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety. Finally biodiversity can be impacted through frequent inundation.

The EU Floods Directive, which has been transposed into national legislation, provides a framework for the assessment and management of flood risk from all sources of flooding and aims to reduce the adverse consequences on human health, the environment, economic activity and cultural heritage.

 

·        In depth analysis of the risks that flooding presents in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

 

·        More information on water in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

The key drivers and pressures

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Water quality

The drivers and pressures experienced by different geographical areas within the United Kingdom vary, for example due to population densities and land use.

High population densities and transport networks put pressure on the water environment.  Discharges from sewage works can impact on the quality of water or the enjoyment of it.

Governments across the UK have identified a need for new homes as the result of a changing population. Managed well, this growth and regeneration will be an opportunity to make improvements to the water environment in a way that enhances people’s quality of life.

Diffuse pollution is a major pressure on the water environment, and can come from urban areas as well as rural areas. Further improvements are needed to farm practices to protect water quality and allow wildlife to thrive.

Rivers and estuaries have been highly modified physically, to facilitate development, flood and coastal risk management or navigation. Physical modification needs to be addressed in order to achieve more natural functioning of wetland ecosystems, and protect fish and their habitats into the future.

The aquifers that supply drinking water also have to provide flow for rivers and wetlands. It is therefore essential to safeguard supplies and the environment by protecting groundwater from pollution.

The water environment is constantly under threat from new invasive non-native species. These have an often rapid and adverse affect on the natural fauna and flora. Monitoring and prevention is important as some species can be extremely difficult to eradicate once they have taken hold.

 

Water abstraction and use

Demand for water is extremely high leading to concerns over maintaining the water resources available for people and the environment. In the South East of England for example, the Thames River Basin District is one of the driest in the country receiving a quarter less rainfall than the national average, and less per person than many Mediterranean countries.

Figure 6a below shows the distribution of water abstraction by source in England and Wales. Out of 21 billion cubic metres extracted in 2007, freshwater abstraction (defined as all non-tidal surface water plus groundwater) totalled 57 per cent.

Figure 6b shows that groundwater abstraction occurs predominately in the relatively dryer central and southern areas of England, whilst in Wales abstraction is almost entirely from surface freshwater. Tidal water is abstracted largely for the electricity supply sector, and is generally returned to the environment.

Figure 6 a) Water abstraction in England and Wales by source (billion m3) and b) by  Environment Agency region and source, 2006/07

Figure 6 a) Water abstraction in England and Wales by source (billion m3) and b) by  Environment Agency region and source, 2006/7

 

Approximately 6.1 billion cubic metres of water are abstracted annually by water companies in England and Wales. The household sector accounts for approximately two-thirds of all water use from the public water supply, about 3.5 billion cubic metres per year. Daily water consumption is around 150 litres per person.

The remaining public supply is used by a variety of industries (Figure 7)

 

Figure 7: Public Water Supply use by industrial sector, England & Wales, 2006/07

Figure 7: Public Water Supply use by industrial sector, England & Wales, 2006/7

 

Approximately 6.3 billion cubic metres of freshwater are abstracted directly each year by industry in England and Wales. In 2006/7 electricity supply accounted for 60 per cent, fish farming a further 20 per cent and the manufacturing sector 15 per cent. Within the manufacturing sector basic metals accounted for 27 per cent and chemicals 25 per cent (Figure 8).

 

Figure 8: Self-abstraction of non-tidal surface water and groundwater, England & Wales, 2006/07

Figure 8: Self-abstraction of non-tidal surface water and groundwater, England & Wales, 2006/7

 

Flooding

The two main drivers and pressures are climate change and the pressures that expanding urban areas will have on flood plains by decreasing permeability.

Climate change predictions indicate that in the future there will be more frequent and intense rain events. The effect of these will be enhanced by hotter, drier summers which will increase surface water run-off as the dried-out soil will have decreased permeability. This will greatly increase the level of damage caused by flooding.

Population increases in the future will also lead to increased pressure on flood plains as urban areas expand. If development takes place on flood plains this will cause higher overall flood risk. Expanding urban areas will also decrease overall permeability and therefore increase surface water run-off and thus flood risk.   

The 2020 outlook

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

2015 predictions for water bodies classified as ‘good’ overall status compared to 2009 are shown below

 

Percentage of water bodies classified as Good overall status1, 2009 and 2015

Country

England

Wales

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Year

2008

2015

2008

2015

2008

2015

2008

2015

Rivers

25

29

29

39

56

63

20

56

Lakes

35

36

39

39

66

71

27

32

Estuaries

8

8

29

29

85

85

0

29

Coasts

35

36

67

67

94

97

40

65

All surface waters

26

30

31

39

64

69

21

55

Groundwater

38

39

69

69

76

85

97

97

All waters

26

30

32

40

65

71

28

59

Notes:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.  Figures include 'overall potential' where water bodies are artificial or heavily modified. Some water bodies will never achieve good overall status because they have been physically altered for a specific use, such as navigation, recreation, water storage or flood protection. Overall potential is based on the quality that can be achieved given a water bodies changed conditions.

 

Under the current ‘High Emissions’ climate change scenario, precipitation in the 2080s in the South East would decrease by 50 per cent in summer, and increase by up to 30 per cent in winter, whereas in the North West, it may decrease by 30-40 per cent in summer and increase by 20-25 per cent in winter. Unless we change our current water management and behaviour, we will face serious threats both to the security of our water supplies and to the health of our water environments and nature conservation sites.

Population growth and changes in household size mean more houses are needed in some areas where abstraction is not currently sustainable.

The probability and severity of flooding is likely to increase in the future due to climate change and human actions. Figure 9 shows the different levels of damage that could occur in the future as a result of differing levels of emissions and climate change. 


Figure 9:  Average annual damage from flooding across the UK expressed as a percentage of GDP – present day and different emission scenarios for the 2080s

Figure 9:  Average annual damage from flooding across the UK expressed as a percentage of GDP – present day and different emission scenarios for the 2080s

KEY

World Markets = High Emissions Scenario

National Enterprise = Medium-High Emissions Scenario

Local Stewardship = Medium-Low Emissions Scenario

Global Sustainability = Low Emissions Scenario

Source: Foresight: Future Flooding (2004)

Existing and planned responses

Published: 26 Nov 2010 Modified: 08 Apr 2011

Defra’s water strategy for England (‘Future Water’) sets out plans and practical steps that will be taken.

Water quality

·        The UK met a key milestone in the implementation of the Water Framework Directive with the publication of its River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs) for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

·        Within each RBMP, a programme of measures have been established to deliver indentified improvements to water bodies, ensuring that water bodies currently at good status or better do not deteriorate, and those water bodies that are not at good status are restored.

·        Catchment Sensitive Farming is land management that keeps diffuse emissions of pollutants to levels consistent with the ecological sensitivity and uses of rivers, groundwaters and other aquatic habitats

·        The Groundwater Regulations were made in November 1998 to complete transposition of the Groundwater Directive. This was followed by ‘groundwater protection codes’, giving advice on how the regulations apply to sheep dip, petrol stations and solvents.

Water abstraction and use

Measures to reduce demand for water include:

·        Management measures undertaken by the private water companies in England and Wales.

·        The Enhanced Capital Allowance scheme enables businesses to claim 100 per cent first year capital allowances on investments in technologies and products included in the Water Technology List.

·        In England Government has introduced Building Regulations to set a whole building performance standard of 125 litres per person per day for water use in new homes.

·        In England there are water companies targets to reduce their leakage to its economic level, below which it would cost more to reduce leakage further than to produce water from an alternative source.

Flooding

·        In England and Wales, The Flood and Water Management Act received Royal Assent in April 2010. It will allow more comprehensive management of flood risk for people, homes and businesses.

·        Investment in flood defences in England over the last decade has led to a reduced risk of flooding for around 400,000 households (Figure 10).

 

Figure 10: Cumulative number of households benefiting from reduced likelihood of flooding since 2003-2004 (England)

Figure 10: Cumulative number of households benefiting from reduced likelihood of flooding since 2003-2004 (England)

Source: Flooding in England (2009) EA

 

·        Further information on flood risk in England

·        In Wales, during 2008-9 approximately £20 million was spent on improving flood defences keeping them in good order; around two thirds of the total flood and coastal risk management budget.  Between 2003 and 2009, this has reduced the risk of flooding to more than 5,800 properties (Figure 11).


Figure 11: Cumulative number of households benefiting from reduced likelihood of flooding since 2003-2004 (Wales)

 

Figure 11: Cumulative number of households benefiting from reduced likelihood of flooding since 2003-2004 (Wales)

Source: Flooding in Wales (2009) EA

 

·        In Northern Ireland during 2009-10 approximately £5.5m has been spent on flood defence and drainage infrastructure schemes. Between 2003 and 2009 flood risk has been reduced to around 2,400 housing equivalents. The Water Environment (Floods Directive) Regulations (NI) 2009 which transpose the EU Floods Directive, will introduce a more sustainable and modern approach to flood risk management.

·        Through the Flood Risk Management Act 2009, in Scotland has introduced a more sustainable and modern approach to flood risk management.

·        Investment in flood prevention schemes in Scotland has also increased substantially over the past decade (Figure 12).

 

Figure 12: Cumulative investment in Flood Prevention Schemes in Scotland under the 1961 Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act.

Figure 12: Cumulative investment in Flood Prevention Schemes in Scotland under the 1961 Flood Prevention (Scotland) Act.

Source: Written Answers 15 April 2008. S3W-11510. Edinburgh: Scottish Parliament.

·        Following the floods of summer 2007, 92 recommendations for flood risk management were published (progress report)

·        Work is being done on improving flood warning and prediction services with residents in flood risk areas now able to sign up to receive individual flood warnings. Further preparation for flood emergencies is also underway.

·        Scottish Planning Policy 7 (SPP7) aims to prevent development which would have a significant probability of being flooded or which would increase the impact of flooding elsewhere.

·        In Northern Ireland Planning Policy Statement 15: Planning and Flood Risk outlines the precautionary approach to flood risk management that has been adopted.

·        In December 2008, the Scottish Government and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) issued a Statement of Principles on the provision of flood insurance. Under the agreement, the ABI and the Scottish Government will work together on measures to manage and reduce the growing flood threat. A copy of the agreement can be found at:

·        In August 2009 the Northern Ireland Executive and the Association of British Insurers (ABI) issued a Statement of Principles on the provision of flood insurance. Under this Agreement, the ABI and the Northern Ireland Executive will work together on measures to provide a long-term solution that will enable flood insurance to continue to be widely available.

Disclaimer

The country assessments are the sole responsibility of the EEA member and cooperating countries supported by the EEA through guidance, translation and editing.

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