News | March 27, 2024

Urgent Investment Needed For ‘Wicked' Rivers Problem

The water sector is at the forefront of the UK's sustainability revolution, but this is not without its challenges. The need for greater investment, underpinned by robust data, was the subject of British Water's second annual Creating a More Sustainable Water Sector Conference in Manchester on 21 March 2024.

Opening the conference was keynote speaker, Mark Lloyd, chief executive of the Rivers Trust, a charity representing 65 local catchment rivers throughout the UK and Ireland. The organisation recently published its State of Our Rivers report, which reveals that pollution from sewage, agricultural runoff, and industrial activities has severely impacted the health of rivers.

In his keynote, Lloyd gave an overview of the challenges facing the water sector, the opportunities for integrated and collaborative solutions that can improve river health and increase biodiversity and called for better data to guide and strengthen this vital work.

“The health of rivers is a wicked problem that we are struggling to solve. The reasons are well known. Agriculture and land management are primary contributors, contributing to 62% of failures, the water sector follows behind at 54% and urban and transport 26%.

“Several other factors are at play, including physical modification of rivers - as by removing the natural functions of rivers, we remove their ability to cope,” said Lloyd.

He explained that the latest Rivers Trust report found that none of England's rivers are in good chemical health, and only 15% pass ecological health tests. According to Lloyd, combined sewer overflows (CSOs) were responsible for 4% of failures and contributed to around 12% of failures to achieve good ecological status overall.

“Land management is an area where we can make the quickest, deepest and cheapest changes. There are huge benefits to society for fixing the way we manage our land and currently regulation is failing to deliver and market approaches are proving difficult because there is a resistance to allow stacking of funding on top of public subsidy.”

In March, environment secretary Steve Barclay announced a fast-tracked investment of £180M to prevent over 8,000 sewage spills in English waterways over the next year. This investment will involve artificial intelligence (AI) systems, in-sewer monitors, specialist staff recruitment, and wetland construction.

The funding is in addition to the existing £3.1B investment in storm overflow improvements and ongoing annual investment by water companies - contributing to the largest infrastructure investment in water company history. The announcement also includes a ban on bonuses for water company executives in cases of serious breaches and a quadrupling of the Environment Agency's regulatory capacity.

Lila Thompson, chief executive, British Water said, “The conference was particularly timely given the Environment Agency report today (27 March) that there has been a significant increase in sewage spills into England's rivers and seas, more than doubling from 2022 to 2023. These findings further emphasise the importance of investing in storm overflows, related infrastructure and innovations to protect waterways and promote sustainability.”

Alongside insights and strategies from leaders across the supply chain, including Grundfos, MWH Treatment, Mott Macdonald, RSK and Stantec, the event also reviewed the sustainability blueprints of UK water companies, with participants from Welsh Water, Anglian Water, Northumbrian Water and South West Water. In addition, the Environment Agency provided updates on the sector’s net zero commitments.

“We need to look upstream and what happens when that raindrop first hits the ground. Together we must address the crucial question of how we ensure that water industry investment delivers the greatest value to society by contributing to building resilience to climate change and addressing the biodiversity crisis,” added Lloyd.

About British Water
A not-for-profit, dynamic, membership organisation that provides leadership, support and best practice and addresses the challenges faced by the UK water sector through its UK, Technical and International forums, and its neutral Water Industry Forum.’ For more information, visit

Source: British Water