South East Rivers Trust

Natural Capital: it’s not just time to talk – it’s time to act


Our Trust Director, Bella Davies, welcomes everyone to the PROWATER Conference

On 5th March, we hosted the Rivers Trust Spring Conference in Canterbury (Kent), focussing on Natural Capital and Water Resources and launching the Interreg PROWATER Project.  

“There has never been a more important time to talk about water resources.”

Arline Rickard, Rivers Trust CEO

Keynote speakers Ian Dickie (Director, eftec), Meyrick Gough (Director, WRSE) and Jan Verheeke (Secretary, Flemish Environment and Nature Council) drew a narrative from principles of adapting landscapes to climate change to an international perspective on water resources, and ultimately the regional challenges we are facing.

For example:

  • Globally, 1 in 4 people are affected by water scarcity, and our demand for water is only increasing.
  • In the UK, a third of groundwater bodies are over abstracted and population is growing.
  • Locally,  in the South East, where 40% of the UK population live, we face water deficits of 960Ml/day to 2000Ml/day in the next 80 years (London currently uses 260Ml/day).

Climate change, land use and demand, are all affecting the availability of water. Natural capital is a key element in adapting to these challenges: healthy ecosystems are resilient to extremes and provide a combination of services such as clean water and food. There is no question that adaptation needs to take a long-term view on protecting and restoring those ecosystems rather than allowing them to be undervalued and degraded. And yet, this is what we are doing now.

Our approach to managing our natural capital needs to change. Small, “low regret” shifts are needed as well as “transformational changes”, with adaptation planning for a 4°C temperature rise scenario.

“Uncertainty or a lack of data are not a real barrier.”

Ian Dickie, eftec Director

While there is a need to understand and demonstrate the benefits of certain interventions, we already have a huge amount of data available to us. We deal with uncertainty all the time – natural capital accounts give us an opportunity to structure data in a way that makes it meaningful for those that want to invest in it, in order to balance trade-offs and make evidence-based decisions.

A systems approach, providing a balance between environmental and social needs, has been international policy since the introduction of the Water Framework Directive (WFD). Jan Verheeke reminded us that the WFD was so aligned to existing UK policy that no new laws had to be introduced at the time. Yet, the integration of catchment-based solutions in investment options represented in water management plans is still catching up.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had not only 100 resilient cities, but also 100 resilient catchments?”

Meyrick Gough, WRSE Director

To tackle these challenges, the conference was also used to launch the Interreg 2 Seas PROWATER project – a cross-border collaboration lead by the University of Antwerp and the Flemish Government. More information about the project and its partners in SE England can be found here.

PROWATER is using an ecosystem approach to protect and restore water resources, and create rewarding mechanisms for those who implement them. The conference explored these topics in detail.

Creating resilient catchments

Examples of measures to create resilient catchments are plenty, and the need to deliver them is clear.

Most catchments in England experienced rainfall below normal levels last year, thousands of customers were left without water as a result of the so-called ‘Beast from the East’ cold snap, and a third of the value of the year’s crop yield was wiped out due to the heatwave last summer. We are facing a system failure, as Barry Bendall (Director for Land and Water, Rivers Trust) puts it, and we need investment in catchment management and natural capital to support the recovery of the system. Partnerships are key to deliver this, as well as new approaches to regulation, like the upcoming abstraction reform.

The benefits of partnerships, as well as some of the approaches to create resilience, were evident in the range of presentations from the UK and abroad. While many examples focus on “low-regret” measures, some go a way towards the “transformational change” we need.

Bronwyn Buntine (Sustainable Drainage Team Lead, KCC) presented us with a case study from Los Angeles.  Here, a range of SuDS approaches – from small scale, distributed raingardens to large scale wetlands, referenced in the UK mainly as an answer to flood issues – contributed to securing sustainable groundwater supply in a region with pressures similar to Kent. The multiple benefits are obvious.

Emmanuel van Houtte (Geologist, IWVA) had another example to consider. His company, unique in Europe, has been testing and employing water re-use since the 1990s. Using treated waste water and the natural ability of dune systems to store and filter it, the quality of drinking water has improved. It has secured provision of water throughout the recent dry periods. On top of that, it has increased biodiversity on their dune sites, reduced abstraction and raised groundwater levels. While similar measures are discussed in the UK, customers’ perception is seen as a barrier. Emmanuel says their customers like it: “It’s cheap and safe”.

For farmers, resilience is a business investment as well as a public good. Examples of ways to increase resilience by improving practices and efficiency were presented by Tom Ormesher, (Environment and Land Use Advisor, NFU) including precision farming and rainwater harvesting. Shaun Dowman (Agricultural Advisor, Affinity Water) complemented this with a perspective from a water company. Investments in catchments to protect water quality are widely used, and a holistic focus on soil health is increasingly being taken up. Both agreed that the established systems will not deliver – we need to create and incentivise transformational change in the farming system, and we need to work with farmers to do it. A similar sentiment was picked up by a video produced by South East Water later on.

Investing in resilient catchments

Investment in natural capital and sustainability means reducing risk to the public, as well as to supply chains and businesses – “it simply makes sense”, said Arlin Rickard, opening the second session of the day. There is a huge appetite for green investments, and case studies exist – Anglian Water’s Green Bond and Thames Water’s Revolving Credit Facility are cited as examples. Opportunities for new kinds of investments are increasing. The role of rivers trusts as trusted, ethical brokers, with staff experienced in a range of works in partnership contexts, will be crucial for effective delivery.

Identifying their reliance on water as number one ingredient and key component of their supply chain, Coca Cola committed to investing in reducing water use and replenishing water in the environment through the Replenish project. Liz Lowe (Sustainability Manager, Coca Cola UK) explained how this led to them understanding their operations and dependencies better, and ultimately helped the establishment of the Water Stewardship Partnership. Businesses with shared risks to their supply chain invest in catchments to increase resilience.

Going beyond Westcountry Rivers Trust’s flagship Upstream Thinking project, Hazel Kendall (Head of Land, WRT) introduced work on creating ecosystem service markets in two catchments. This links to ongoing Courtauld 2025 work to identify and develop markets for new buyers such as recreational users and food retailers.

“Farmers like it, and in trials measures came in at 60% cheaper than they would have done as part of CSF.”

Emma Claydon, Environment Agency

Market-based mechanisms are also being developed by the Environment Agency, currently trialling an online tool to allow farmers to bid for implementing Natural Flood Management on their land. In the future, they want to explore blending public and private finance and deliver over a range of landscapes and funding sources.

Showing success in resilient catchments

At the end of the day, we came back to data. As we heard at the beginning of the day, it’s not the lack of it that’s the issue. Water resource relevant data available to catchment partnerships was presented by Anneka France (Rivers Trust). David Johnson (Director , Rivers Trust) gave insight into work building a shared understanding between farmers in groundwater catchments on how the system works and what components are unsustainable in the long term (stressing the importance of visuals) using this available evidence.

Opportunities for using aquifers for water storage through infiltration on agricultural land are being trialled by Essex and Suffolk Rivers Trust (Jane Herbert, ESRT) – so far successfully. In case studies presented by Emma Rothero (Floodplain Meadows Manager, Open University), natural capital accounts were used to make a case for reconnecting floodplains and managing them as nature reserves. In one instance, this resulted in eight times the value of benefits compared to intensive agricultural management.

Linking evidence to measures and investment mechanisms, Guy Thompson (MD, Entrade) showcased the benefits of EnTrade – an online auction tool for nutrient trading and natural capital – in reducing the complexity when dealing with catchment systems. Verification of measures happens through remote sensing as well as user verification, and payment is made according to effort. This simplifies things for sellers and enables fair distribution based on market process. In all this, the relationships between actors are still crucial. Taking the wider natural capital value into account to enable decisions on multiple benefits will be next.

The panel discussion at the end of the day confirmed that we have the evidence and the systems in place to deal with these challenges. Many of the issues are not new, but timescales to react to them are becoming shorter. The public is willing to support investment in the environment, and it is an opportunity as well as a responsibility to make the voice of younger generations heard – as well as those that have been underserved by consultation and participation so far. It is the responsibility of the government to make use of the tools it has available, and be open to new ones to support the transformational change needed. While a change in the conversation is welcome, with the government committing on delivering the WFD and following key principles of public money for public goods, polluter pays and environmental net gain in its environment bill, it’s not just time to talk – it’s time to act. 

You can find all the presentations from the conference here.

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