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It's only water: who cares?

March 2004

Synoptic geography in practice: the Water Framework Directive

It's only water: who cares?

While schools and colleges were closed for Christmas, something rather significant happened to Britain's rivers and floodplains. In December 2003, the European Water Framework Directive (WFD) became law.

For the first time, there is now a requirement for drainage basins in Britain to be managed in a unified and coherent way (although at this point it is unclear whether the WFD will eventually come to consist of a voluntary code of practice or a series of statutory laws). As part of this process, a total of 11 river basin districts have been designated as covering England and Wales (a ‘district’ may include more than one actual catchment area: for instance, the Mersey basin and River Lee basins comprise a single district).

The Directive requires that all European countries establish and prepare river basin plans with the aim of achieving good ecological quality of waters. Those plans must be supported by economic analyses, and there must eventually be cost recovery within each of the three sectors of water user groups: agriculture, industry and domestic households. The Water Framework Directive is potentially the most significant thing to ever have happened to river management in the UK and it is to be managed by DEFRA (Department of the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs).

Why is the WFD necessary?

The point of the WFD is to establish integrated river basin management plans throughout all of Europe. A catchment is a dynamic open system in which there are three sets of flows occurring, namely water (surface run-off, groundwater flow and river discharge), sediment (bank-side mass movement and subsequent transport of solid load and solutes) and pollutants (both solid and solute).

Different land and water user groups (such as farmers, house-builders, industrialists and nature-lovers amongst others) modify these flows in ways that may adversely impact upon other users in a basin. It is the widespread lack of joint planning by land and water users along European rivers, including Britain, which has given rise to the call for Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). Any single action by one user group is likely to have consequences both up and downstream and on other functional uses.

River Basin Management Plans now need to be established that satisfy the needs of all different parties while meeting good sustainable ecological objectives. This is a daunting task when one considers the actual number of different parties that need to be involved.

Overall, England and Wales has 35,000 km of main river and other minor watercourses and all are small compared with large continental rivers such as the Ganges or Amazon (the mean flow on the largest river, the Trent, is only 93 cumecs). The River Thames extends for 340 km from its source to the sea, draining an area of about 13,600 sq km compared with the Amazon which drains about 7,050,000 sq km over a length of about 6,500km! For this reason, great pressure is placed on British watercourses, all of which must drain and service a mixture of agricultural, recreational and urban land.

There has been substantial new urban development over the last 50 years within UK floodplains, presenting further difficulties for integrated catchment management. For example, floodplain development since 1947 in the town of Maidenhead on the Thames has resulted in the construction of the UK’s most expensive riverline flood alleviation scheme ever, the Jubilee river, an 11km flood relief channel! The Environment Agency estimates that there are now 1.85 million houses, 185,000 commercial properties and 5 million people at risk in flood plains.

Development in flood plains has increased flood risks by reducing flood storage capacity and by increasing run off. Changes in agricultural land management and practices have also contributed to increased run off although the percentage of tree cover in Britain has increased from 3% to 11% since 1919 (see “Conifers for the Chop”) which may offset some interception storage loss. However, much afforestation has been in highland areas.

Currently, the nation is facing a housing crisis with prices rocketing as demand grows due to demographic changes (see “New Towns for new times”). Central government policy favours housing development on ‘brownfield’ or previously developed land, many of which are riverside sites. For example, a huge expansion of London to the east along the Thames estuary, the Thames Gateway, is planned for an area currently in part protected by tidal defences to the 1 in 1,000 year level. Inevitably, more run-off will be generated.

Is water quality improving?

In the last 50 years, major efforts have gone into improving the water quality of the UK’s rivers, particularly urban ones, highly polluted by:

  • industrial discharge
  • untreated or only partially treated effluent from sewage treatment works
  • overflows from sewers
  • contaminated urban and agricultural run-off

For example, in 1950, the River Thames in London was so polluted as to be almost totally devoid of fish life. However, a reduction in industrial and commercial activity along the river and improvements to sewage treatment works and other actions have resulted in the Thames being claimed as one of the cleanest Metropolitan Estuaries in the world supporting over a hundred fish species including Atlantic salmon (Tunstall, 2000). Seals were spotted in the Mersey over Christmas (The Guardian, 01 January 2004).

During the last decade there has been a significant improvement in the chemical and biological quality of classified rivers in England and Wales. Between 1990 and 2000, the percentage of river length classed as below good chemical quality fell from 52% to 32%. Over the same period, the percentage of river length failing to achieve good biological quality declined from 44% to 33%.

Teachers' notes

Controversial issues involving the environment and of geographic significance are often presented via role-plays that sometimes hinge on short extracts from textbooks. The groups represented can be simplified and stereotypical. Issues and policies are rarely simple but through the web it is possible to gain a whole range of views from interest groups. The sources here are authentic, real people and organisations with real interests (for whatever motive) involved in real decision-making.

This unit uses data and case material from the Internet as the focus for teaching and learning about a specific issue.

Background to River Basin Management Plans

Government agency plans for the integrated management of whole water body systems (from areas of surface run-off through to estuaries and the sea), required by recently introduced European water legislation.

The Water Framework Directive (2000/60/EC) is the most significant piece of European water legislation for over 20 years. Although it is only just being implemented (see below) it is useful area of study here because it will fundamentally overhaul the management of the water environment in the UK.

The Directive embodies the concept of integrated river basin management. It sets out environmental objectives for water status based on:

  • Ecological and chemical parameters.
  • Common monitoring and assessment strategies.
  • Arrangements for River Basin administration and planning.
  • A Programme of Measures in order to meet the objectives.

By taking an inclusive approach to managing water as it flows through catchments from lakes, rivers and groundwater to estuaries and the sea, the Directive aims to:

  • Prevent further deterioration and protect and enhance the status of aquatic ecosystems and associated wetlands.
  • Promote sustainable water consumption.
  • Progressively reduce or phase out discharges, emissions and losses of priority substances and priority hazardous substances.
  • Progressively reduce the pollution of groundwater.
  • Contribute to mitigating the effects of floods and droughts.

This will be achieved by:

  • Introducing the concept of River Basin Districts - river catchments or groups of catchments.
  • Analysing the state of River Basin Districts, and the human and natural needs and impacts within them.
  • Establishing monitoring programmes that use biological as well as chemical parameters.
  • Developing management plans for River Basin Districts.
  • Establishing a Programme of Measures that will set out the actions to achieve the environmental objectives of the Directive.

Synoptic activities

River Basin Management Plans are to be established that need to satisfy the needs of all different parties while meeting good sustainable ecological objectives. This is a daunting task when you consider the actual number of different parties that need to be involved.

Table 1 lists all of the organisations that participated in a forum set up by DEFRA in June 2001 for key stakeholders to discuss issues relating to water policy in general in England. Its membership covers a wide range of interests, including the environment, the water industry, agriculture, the countryside, and industry.

Table 1: Organisations currently represented on the Water Framework Directive Forum

  • Association of Electricity Producers
  • British Water
  • Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM)
  • Confederation of British Industry (CBI)
  • Confederation for British Wool and Textiles
  • Chemical Industries Association (CIA)
  • Country Land and Business Association
  • Crop Protection Association
  • Environment Agency
  • Energy Industries Council
  • Energy information Centre
  • English Nature
  • Kaolin and Ball Clay Association 
  • Local Government Association
  • Marine Conservation Society
  • National Farmers Union
  • Non-Ferrous Alliance
  • Pipeline and Plant Construction Group – Environmental Forum
  • Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
  • Surface Engineering Association
  • Surfers Against Sewage
  • UK Centre for Economic and Environmental Development (UKCEED)
  • UK Major Ports Group Ltd
  • UK Steel Association
  • Water UK
  • WaterVoice
  • World Wildlife Fund

1. Why do the organisations (stakeholders) in Table 1 want to be involved in decision-making on water policy?

Categorise the different groups from Table 1 into by those interested in:

Use Supply Demand


Leisure and recreation

2. Choose one organisation (stakeholder) from each category and describe how it uses water and why it might be interested in influencing policy? You may wish to visit some of the organisations websites to find out more about them.

3. For a drainage basin of your choice (or one you have studied) identify the main issues and stakeholders.

4. Is it possible that a River Basin Management Plan can be devised to manage, in a coherent way, satisfying all the different groups? For the drainage basin you have chosen prepare a PowerPoint presentation to summarise the main issues and suggest ways that it might be managed.

Written by Dr Simon Oakes who works for the Flood Hazard Research Centre (Middlesex University) and Mander Portman Woodward School (London). He is a senior examiner for Edexcel. Colin Green (Middlesex University) provided some of the data for this feature.

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