Environment

There's been almost no improvement in the water quality of UK rivers for a decade

The number of UK rivers and canals classed as "poor" increased between 2010 and 2020 despite ambitious targets to clean up river pollution.

The River Derwent. Tory MPs voted down amendments to stop water companies dumping sewage in rivers and seas. Photo: © Malcolm Coils (cc-by-sa/2.0)

The government wants 75% of England's rivers to be classed as "good" by 2027. Photo: © Malcolm Coils (cc-by-sa/2.0)

UK rivers and canals have seen almost no improvement in quality for the past decade, and the percentage classed as “poor” has even increased slightly, new data has revealed. 

Just 30 per cent of rivers and canals were classed as in “good” condition in 2020, showing no improvement since 2010, when the same figure was recorded. 

The data, released by the Office for National Statistics, (ONS) comes just two months after the government announced a target for 75 per cent of England’s water bodies to achieve “good” ecological status by 2027. 

The ONS data set looked at the condition of various habitat types across the UK, including water bodies like lakes, rivers and canals.

Water bodies are categorised into one of five classifications, ranging from “bad” to “high”.

Data for 2020 shows that the number of rivers and canals awarded “high” condition status improved by just 1 percentage point in the past 10 years, while the number classed as “good” and “moderate” didn’t improve at all.

While the share of UK lakes classified as “high” and “moderate” rose between 2010 and 2020, the number classed as “good” fell by 14 percentage points, from 38 per cent to 22 per cent. 

Pollution in rivers has been the subject of intense public interest for several months, with data revealing that water companies are dumping raw sewage into rivers at regular intervals. 

In April, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand an end to sewage pollution, which experts have warned is contributing to a “chemical cocktail” of pollutants in rivers

As well as creating risks to human health, pollution from sewage, farms and roads is having severe impacts on water-based ecosystems. Some rivers are so polluted that agal blooms have formed, depleting the water of oxygen and killing off animals that depend on it. 

Though the ONS dataset doesn’t make a direct link between fish stocks and pollution in UK water bodies, it does show that the number of rod-caught and retained salmon and trout decreased by 94 per cent in the UK between 1996 and 2020. 

Individual pollution incidents have had a marked impact on fish populations in the past.

Last year, a farming company in North Devon was fined after pollution from its site killed more than 9,000 fish in a local river. 

MPs, the government and water companies have come under increasing pressure to solve the issue of water pollution, leading to new target-setting in the 2021 Environment Act and the 2022 Nature Recovery green paper.

Earlier this year, however, the government was criticised after it emerged that the Nature Recovery paper only proposed targets for reducing individual types of pollution in rivers, rather than setting an overall target for ecological improvement.

Mark Lloyd, CEO at the Rivers Trust, said:

“The continued failure to achieve good river health in the vast majority of the country is very frustrating.  Poor ecological health of rivers is a wicked problem because there are so many causes. 

“If we are to get a grip of this, we need to stop trying to solve problems individually, and instead seek solutions that tackle numerous problems at once.  An example is restoring wetlands to our landscape, given that we have lost 90% of our wetlands in this country. 

“These would not only make a huge difference to water quality, but they would also help tackle flooding and make us more resilient to drought.  Unless we take a systemic, integrated approach to water management, these statistics will continue to flatline.”

A Defra spokesperson said:

“Through our Environment Act we are delivering real action to clean up our water, consulting on legally binding targets to help restore and drive improvements in water quality and availability, and launching our Storm Overflows Discharge Reduction Plan, outlining how water companies must end the unacceptable number of sewage discharges.

“Almost 95% of bathing waters in England achieved ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ status last year and the Environment Agency’s work with water companies in the last two decades means there is now 69% less phosphorous and 79% less ammonia in waste water.”

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