Fixing river sewage won’t solve freshwater crisis, says UK charity

28th June 2024

Tackling river sewage in isolation is not the answer to solving the crisis facing Britain’s freshwaters, says a UK wildlife conservation charity. In a manifesto for the new government, Freshwater Habitats Trust instead calls for an ‘urgent policy reset’ which protects the whole of the freshwater environment.

The manifesto, A reset for freshwaters: our call to the new government, notes that the current emphasis on trying to protect and improve our freshwaters by cleaning up pollution at the cost of protecting what is still in good condition, is failing. It calls instead for a change in approach, focused on building out from the best sites, taking all kinds of freshwaters into account. The manifesto highlights the need to put abundant and biodiverse small freshwater habitats, including headwater streams, ponds and small fens, at the heart of water management. The evidence is that this will provide quick and cost-effective results ‘while we try to fix the sewage scandal’.

Freshwater Habitats Trust CEO Professor Jeremy Biggs said: “Everyone now understands the sewage problems in our rivers, but tackling river sewage in isolation will make very little difference for Britain’s freshwaters.

Two young boys wearing waterproofs and splashing in a shallow pond.

“Freshwater plants and animals depend on a wide network of habitats, including small waterbodies, such as headwater streams, ponds, springs, flushes, ditches and small fens. These habitats are largely ignored in legislation, despite a growing body of research showing just how important they are for biodiversity. In fact, they are vital for freshwater life and, together, support more species than larger waters.

“While we share the deep concern about pollution from untreated sewage in our rivers, we also know that other measures are necessary if we want to see real improvements for freshwater.”

Freshwater Habitats Trust has drawn up the manifesto using its own research and other evidence from freshwater scientists. It focuses on three requests to the next government.

Pond with plants growing out of it under a blue, cloudy sky

- Pond at Cutteslowe, Oxfordshire

The first is to ‘start with the smallest’ to ‘bring rapid benefits at a time when change is urgent’, by focusing on small waterbodies, which are the most cost-effective part of the water environment to manage. Building on its own pond creation work from the last 35 years, the charity calls for new networks of high quality freshwater habitats, which would be quickly colonised by aquatic plants and animals.

Secondly, the manifesto calls on the next government to ‘bring back clean water’ to our towns and countryside by restoring and creating small waterbodies. This is because these habitats can be better protected from pollution because their catchments are smaller than those of larger waterbodies, such as rivers.

The final appeal is for the new government to focus first on protecting the highest quality remaining freshwater habitats, alongside efforts to clean up pollution. The manifesto notes that ‘by protecting and then building out from our most important freshwater habitats, we can create connected networks of freshwaters, large and small, allowing species to spread to new sites and respond to climate change.’

The manifesto includes a series of policy requests for the next government to ensure small waterbodies are represented in key pieces of legislation, such as Biodiversity Net Gain and 30 by 30.

A reset for freshwaters: our call to the new government
National Trust Coleshill Green Hay creation.

- New habitats created at the National Trust Coleshill estate.