PROWATER: Managing landscapes for resilient water resources

Water is a vital resource for society and the basis of wildlife ecosystems. Climate change is bringing drier, hotter summers and wetter winters. By 2050, the region’s residents could be collectively short of at least one billion litres of drinking water per day. Restoring ecosystems – by boosting water retention across landscapes, improving the long-term stability of groundwater levels and river base flows – is vital.

The South East Rivers Trust is running one of 10 pilot schemes as part of PROWATER, financed by the Interreg 2 Seas European Regional Development Fund with ten partners from the UK, Belgium and the Netherlands.

  • Headwater wetlands restored


  • Hectares of soil better able to retain water


  • Hectares of grass and heathland restored


  • Demonstration sites


  • Running until


PROWATER: Managing landscapes for resilient water resources aims to:

Increase the resilience of our catchments and the water supply they are providing to climate change.

Develop an evidence-led way to target nature-based solutions for water resources.

Work with partners in our catchments to develop a shared long-term vision.

Provide policy recommendations about how to invest in natural capital for water.

Create demonstration sites to showcase different nature-based solutions in the landscape.

What's the issue?

Most of the South East’s drinking water comes from chalk groundwater sources, replenished by winter rainfall soaking through soils. They also support our rare chalk streams. The rest of our water comes from rivers such as the Medway – pumped into reservoirs.

Residents in the South East already use up to 17 litres of water more per person, per day than the national average.

The natural features that help store water in the landscape are being lost or damaged, cutting the amount and cleanliness of the water. For example, we have lost 40% of wet grasslands since the 1970s to agricultural drainage. A fifth of our rivers suffer because we draw our water from them.

More pressures to our already stressed ecosystem come from the changing climate. Extreme rainfall events are becoming more common, increasing the risk of flooding, while longer, hotter periods without rainfall not only increase the risk of drought but will increase demand, for people and wildlife, while its availability becomes less reliable.

Water is a vital resource

What are we doing about it?

PROWATER is tackling this issue by restoring key habitats to the landscape – retaining, storing and replenishing water. This includes restoring healthy soils and wetlands, chalk grasslands and other natural features, through investment from those that benefit, such as water companies. This is also known as Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES).

Investing in our natural capital is becoming ever more important and starting to be at the forefront of policymaking. For example, in the new Environmental Land Management Schemes and similar programmes to incentivise carbon capture and water quality improvements.

The South East is the UK's driest area © South East Rivers Trust

Where is this taking place?

The South East Rivers Trust is focused on three pilot areas for its role within the PROWATER project:

  • River Beult (Medway catchment in Kent)
  • Little Stour (Kentish Stour catchment)
  • Friston Forest (Cuckmere catchment, East Sussex)

The topics of this work are divided into three main areas.

They are as follows:

  • soil management
  • wetlands
  • chalk grass and heathland restoration

Read on to find out more about our work under these work headings.

The three areas SERT is working on under the PROWATER project

Soil management

We are trialing restoring working with local farmers. 

Soil stores, purifies, retains and drains water. It regulates water flow to groundwater bodies and rivers alike, and plays a key role in water quality by taking up nutrients or releasing sediment. Sadly, the majority of soil is not in a good condition.

Working with two local farmers, we have seeded a total 5.7 ha of land. We are monitoring the impact of this more diverse plant species (herbal leys) on the infiltration and drainage ability of soils both on heavy clay and permeable chalk soils.

Soil sampling has been undertaken on both sites, and soil moisture profile probes are monitoring the movement of water into the soil and, in the case of the chalk site, groundwater body.

Live monitoring data for one site near Biddenden (Kent) can be accessed here (with funding from the CaBA Water Resources Fund). 

Username: biddendenpublic  & Password: WaterResources

Soil analysis


Wetlands come in many forms, such as wet woodlands, wet grasslands or fens. Stodmarsh, a National Nature Reserve in the Stour catchment, relies on the flows from the chalk aquifer and is heavily impacted by pollution. On the permeable soils over chalk, wetlands are less common in the upper catchment. On the heavy soils of the Beult, wetlands would naturally be common across the landscape, but have often been lost to historic drainage to make land more suitable for agriculture.

Headwater wetlands, on the first few miles of a stream network, are an especially significant influence on the natural hydrological function of a catchment, but often degraded.

Wetlands can be restored in a range of ways. We are planning and collecting baseline data for the restoration of temporary wetland areas and a better connected riparian area on a woodland and meadow site in the Upper Beult, taking a ‘Stage 0’ approach, resetting it to its natural state, that allows a multi-braided, diverse channel to develop.

A wet grasslands that could be restored further © South East Rivers Trust

Chalk Grass and Heathland restoration

Chalk grassland is a rare, species rich habitat that develops on the thin, nutrient poor soils over chalk, like they are found in the Stour catchment or the chalk under Friston Forest.

In Friston Forest and Lullington Heath, chalk grassland and chalk heathland were lost to the development of a productive forest in the 1940s. Intensive agriculture and its fertiliser input, as well as lack of grazing to manage scrub developing, has resulted in large parts of this habitat being lost in other places.

While this does not immediately seem relevant to rivers, the clean water draining into the chalk is a valuable contribution to the chalk groundwater underneath. Forests and intensive grasslands use more water than less productive natural grasslands, and so impact the amount of rainwater that reaches the groundwater body.

In Friston Forest, we are restoring 5.5 ha of grassland from forest and scrub, and 1.4 ha of chalk heathland from gorse. These sites are being monitored using soil moisture profile probes down to 1.2m depth, to track the movement of water into the chalk.

Chalk heathland © South East Rivers Trust

Informing policy

The PROWATER pilots will serve as templates to be potentially used in other places across Europe facing the same issues.

We are making an effort to link to existing policies and plans in our region and beyond to direct our focus, and use the evidence we create to inform policies of the future. This will include producing guidance on the creation of PES schemes, identifying stakeholders and overcoming barriers to delivery on the ground.

Partnership working is key to shaping policy © South East Rivers Trust

Cross-border cooperation

Working across borders helps us to be more innovative, share experiences, and access a wide range of expertise. Interreg 2 Seas is a European territorial cooperation program for the United Kingdom, France, the Netherlands and Belgium (Flanders). 10 partners from Flanders, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom are working together on PROWATER.  In each country, water companies, governments and research institutes, as well as land managers, are involved in order to achieve a shared vision. 

The partners from Flanders are: de Vlaamse Overheid (Departement Omgeving), Universiteit Antwerpenprovincie AntwerpenPIDPA and Natuurpunt
The partner from the Netherlands is: Waterschap Brabantse Delta
The partners from the United Kingdom are: Westcountry Rivers TrustKent County CouncilSouth East Water and the South East Rivers Trust.


A robust understanding of our catchments and how climate change affects them informs what nature-based solutions can be delivered and their impact on water resources and other benefits.

We are using GIS-based spatial prioritisation methods and established ecosystem service quantification tools to make informed choices about what we invest in and where.

Take a look at maps produced by the University of Antwerp.

Catchment mapping