As a means of keeping up to date with freshwater issues, news and other potential organisations to refer to or contact as a part of my final major project, I decided to undertake further research.
Throughout previous references, I had noted this reoccurring theme of Europe’s 2020 vision, especially upon the BBC photo gallery discussing Britain’s big wildlife revival. As a started point, I decided to investigate this further as a means of elaborating upon the greater implications of this ambition.
I discovered that 2020 was part of much larger nature photography project than I had previously considered, with the intention of utilising various media to promote the significance of restoring fragmented natural habitats, featuring the work of 20 acclaimed photographers.
2020VISION is the most ambitious nature photography project ever staged in the UK. It aims to engage and enthuse a massive audience by using innovative visual media to convey the value of restoring our most important but often fragmented natural habitats – to show that healthy ecosystems are not just for wildlife, but are something fundamental to us all.
In a nutshell, 2020VISION is a nature photography project that aims to communicate the link between habitat restoration and our own well being.
For the first time, 20 of the UK’s top nature and wildlife photographers, along with filmmakers and sound recordists, have come together to tell an inspirational story about some of the UK’s ecosystems and the services they provide to us all, such as clean water, fresh air and productive soils.
2020VISION identified a number of flagship projects up and down the country, that are currently restoring, reconnecting, or at the very least protecting, damaged habitats or species. Over a 20-month period, the2020VISION team carried out 20 iWitness assignments at these locations, producing a set of stunning pictures, along with supporting video footage and sound.
The thousands of images and hours of film generated from these assignments have been woven into compelling narratives and presented in innovative ways, such as the stunning 2020VISION Roadshow, a multi-city event that will reach far beyond ‘the converted’.
2020VISION will inspire people of all ages and backgrounds and establish that link between healthy nature and healthy people.
What makes 2020VISION different?
For too long, conservation has been communicated using technical jargon, inaccessible to all but a minority audience. The time has come for fresh thinking; 2020VISION speaks a new sort of language – one that recognizes that people’s relationship with nature is not scientific but emotional; one that motivates a wide audience by connecting with their value systems.
By bringing nature photographers and film makers together with the scientific and conservation community, we can create an unprecedented set of communication resources that would simply not be possible in isolation. Using the power of visual imagery – unique in its ability to communicate on an emotional level – 2020VISION will inspire and inform a massive audience.
Who’s behind 2020VISION?
In the longer term ‘the vision’ is one for society as a whole, but for now, 2020VISION is spearheaded by theWild Media Foundation, a social enterprise company working to bring nature’s stories to life.
Whilst searching the site itself, I discovered various relevant sub-divisions relating areas of interest to my own project, starting with more than just a wetland.
MORE THAN JUST WETLAND
Living Landscapes are exactly that – landscapes (and seascapes for that matter) brimming with life. Up and down the country The Wildlife Trusts are working with lots of different people to restore and reconnect bits of nature that are not as full of life as they might be; to create Living Landscapes.
Down in Somerset is an extensive area of wetland marsh
– The Somerset Levels – which is being revitalised to function
more effectively; not only as a better home for more wildlife but as a water purifier and flood defence for people. Both the Avon and Somerset Wildlife Trusts, and their army of volunteers, are making heroic efforts to restore the Levels to a Living Landscape and elsewhere, a range of partners are reintroducing cranes for the first time in 400 years. Bit by bit, the Somerset Levels are becoming More Than Just a Wetland.
Let’s be straight here: a vast complex of wet grassland, wet woodland, raised bog, reedbed and other watery habitats have been lost to the UK; drained for agriculture, sapped of their life-rich wetness. But this trend is now being reversed and our carbon-locking, water-purifying wetlands are coming back to life. Restoring whole wetland ecosystems is a relatively new science but the rebirth has begun and we’re getting a glimpse of what might be possible in the future (just look at what’s already happening with beavers and cranes), as our wild wetlands spread across the country.
Each contributor has their own area of focus within this, including various interesting photo stories which acted like a diary of their own individual approach and process of their briefs. There was also a large image gallery to offer their own creative representations of these places including Guy Edwardes, Ross Hoddinott, Nick Upton and Paul Harris.
Many of these images felt contextually relevant to some the compositions I have visualised for this project, or rather side of my intended story, one of optimism for natural conservation efforts in wetland areas.
I also started look at more specific examples featured within this category and various others, such as more than just a river which reinforce another reference for freshwater wildlife/conservation imagery.
Finding some Headspace
Almost 2 years ago to the day I pressed the shutter with my camera pointing at a pure white ptarmigan high in the Cairngorms and in doing so bagged my first shot for the 2020VISION project. Recently, I undertook my final assignment and what a difference in habitats. The Cairngorm Mountains are high, rugged and remote. Morecambe Bay is low, flat and surrounded by industry. As such, it’s not the easiest place to work. The forecast was mixed and with a short window of opportunity, I have to say I felt a wee bit pressured. The likes of Chris Gomersall, David Tipling, Danny Green and Mark Hamblin had already fed fantastic images into the story I was following – that of the UK’s estuaries and saltmarshes being ‘More than just mud’. So my task was simple: evocative scenics in dramatic light. Sounds straightforward on paper – trouble is I don’t know the area very well so I had to hit the ground running.
One of the great things about the internet is the ability to research locations and to see what other photographers have done where. Morecambe Bay is seemingly not a landscape photography magnet and I found little online that suggested obvious starting points. I sat in my campervan with a cup of tea and pondered. What were the key elements I needed to articulate here? The only word I could come up with was ‘Bigness’. Morecambe Bay is Big. Big skies, Big views…just Big. But also flat, so I needed some viewpoints and assuming dramatic skies – a pre-requisite for this type of work – I needed to get close to water to show that light to its best effect.With these types of jobs I tend to find that working and then re-working the same few locations is more productive than charging around trying to cover everything. And so it was that over 4 days I began to gravitate towards the area around Arnside and Silverdale (fantastic cafe at RSPB Leighton Moss by the way) with dawn shoots further west at Grange.
Through a set of contacts I managed to coerce a couple of cockle fishermen to ‘model’ for me. The cockle beds in the Bay are closed presently so I’d like to point out that no cockles were harvested during the making of these pictures. The shoot however, did in many ways reflect the backdrop to why 2020VISION had chosen this location.
There’s a big project underway in the area appropriately called Headlands to Headspace. This is an ambitious undertaking with the objective of rejuvenating the productivity of the Bay. I don’t just mean economic productivity, I mean ecological, cultural and even social productivity: allowing the world-class wildlife of the Bay to prosper and to allow people to benefit from improved ecological integrity – this very much includes those who make their living from harvesting natural resources.
Morecambe Bay is ostensibly a land of contradictions where natural beauty struggles to shake off the shadow of heavy industry. But it’s by no means unique in that respect. The secret perhaps – and it’s a tricky one – is not a war between one or the other, but an imaginative and sympathetic accommodation of both. Headlands to Headspace is just about right. Standing out on the mudflats at dawn with a peregrine calling nearby and with Bigness in my viewfinder, Headspace was what was offered and we all need to take up that offer when it’s made available. It’s fair to say that over 2 years working on 2020VISION I’ve had plenty of Headaches but when that memory fades, it will be the magical Headspace moments that stay with me.
Boost for rare fish in Ennerdale
Driving across misty moors last November, dodging the ubiquitous straying sheep in one of the more remote parts of the Lake District, we had been scouting streams or becks unsuccessfully for elusive salmon, but we were in luck with their smaller relatives, Arctic charr (or char). Populations of this rare fish have been declining, but thanks to a breeding programme run by the Environment Agency (EA), they are now improving.
These ice age relicts, at their southernmost extreme in Britain, differ from one isolated population to the next, and while other charr in Cumbria stay in the cold depths of the Lakes, at Ennerdale they migrate out into the shallow river for their annual spawning.
The night before, we were wading in the river, glimpsing female charr, silvery in my torch beam, but they were too skittish to get any photographs of. Now, the following morning I have a much better chance, a fantastic opportunity to join the Environment Agency team as they catch some charr to remove eggs and milt (sperm), which go to the conservation hatchery at Kielder Salmon Centre, where young fry are reared and then released back into the water at Ennerdale.
As we draw up to where the EA team are working in the river, there is no mistaking the place. I had expected to see a couple of cars, but there is almost a traffic jam. Some of Wild Ennerdale’s many volunteers have turned up to watch, and there is even a coach party – well a busload of school kids on an educational visit. It is lovely to see the local people getting involved, and Gill Watson of the EA gives the kids a talk about the conservation work, clambering on a car bonnet as a makeshift platform. She then joins Pete McCullough and Martin Richardson to get on with “stripping” the fish by squeezing them (they cheerfully reassured me that this is not as uncomfortable for the fish as it looks), and dye marking them on a fin to see if they return another year for spawning. The team are taking eggs and milt from only a small sample of the charr population, but it’s really giving a boost to the numbers in Ennerdale Water.
Soon they are ready to release the fish back into the river, so Andy Jackson (one of the 2020VISION videographers) and I get in the water to catch the action before the fish disperse. A year ago I could never have imagined myself here, and thanks to 2020VISION (and the very helpful EA) I am having some amazing new adventures discovering hidden corners of wildlife. The challenges are really pushing me though, and it is all trial and error rather than tried and tested. Today’s challenge is a unique moment, so I mustn’t blow it. Am I excited – yes! Nervous – you bet!
The river is not flowing too fast and it’s deep enough for me to lie down and get my head under, so I can see what’s going on, but too shallow to use fins. Brian (my husband) watches us from the river bank and he is so helpful as usual, bringing my heavy weight belt down from the car for me. Without it, my bulky drysuit has made me uncontrollably buoyant and the air inside it has risen to form floating bulges along my back, which I can do nothing about in my present position. With the weight belt round my middle I find I can lie on the stony river bed and bob along when I need to, rather like an ungainly hippopotamus. Forget glamour in this line of work!
The fish are released a few at a time, and as they swim past I am entranced by their breeding colours – the males have lovely bright orangey red bellies, and the scene is bathed in the sunlight that has now replaced earlier glowering skies and drizzle. The water is gin clear, a rare treat for an underwater photographer in Britain, but it is essential for the charr, and these fish are not just beautiful to look at but are important indicators of the habitat’s quality, just like the freshwater pearl mussels I was photographing at Ennerdale previously. When the fish have swum away, I stagger out of the water. It’s been a successful day for the EA’s work with the charr, and for Andy and me too.
Finally, I considered more than just the sea.
The seas around the UK have the potential to be among the most productive and wildlife-rich on earth. A vibrant, healthy sea full of life is the foundation upon which long-term fish stocks are built, not to mention the stars of the flourishing wildlife tourism business – seals, puffins, gannets and dolphins. But presently less than 0.001% of our seas are fully protected from damaging activities. If they are to recover and thrive; if they are to continue to provide us with food and recreation, our seas need our respect; they need our help.
Passengers on observation deck of Sea Life Surveys vessel, Sula Beag, watching bottlenose dolphins in the Sound of Mull, Scotland.
About the Wild Media Company
Who are we?
We’re a group of photographers and visual media specialists who have formed a company just like any other. Well, not quite like any other. The Wild Media Company is a company limited by guarantee and we’ve set it up as a social enterprise which means that we get paid for the work we do, but the profits are put aside to further the objectives of the company and we can’t get our hands on them! It’s the law!
What do we do?
We think up bright ideas, take pictures, shoot video, record sound, write text and put together bespoke communications packages to tell nature’s stories on your behalf. Our job is quite simply to bring nature’s stories to life.
Occasionally we’ll instigate projects ourselves which we think have important stories to tell. For this we rely on donations from others. If you enjoy or are inspired by our work, please consider making a donationto help us fund projects.
Why do we do it?
We’re passionate people and believe we have an opportunity to use effective visual imagery to communicate environmental issues to lots of people. We want our products to make people give a damn.
What can we do for you?
We offer a range of innovative and inspiring visual media products and services which will help you to communicate to your audience the stories about nature which matter most to you.
In the past we’ve worked with socially responsible corporates, scientific and research bodies, conservation and land management organisations, government agencies and tourism bodies, to name but a few.
During my research, I also found another relevant organisation that could be worth contacting but on a more local basis, action for sustainable living.
I then decided to focus upon news stories relating to freshwater concepts, as I felt this would keep me updated and encourage further ideas for consideration when approaching later location shoots.
A news story I noted related to various concepts that underpin numerous modern environmental photography projects, most specifically to me, Chris Jordan’s ongoing Midway series.
Microplastics ‘pose toxic threat to marine biodiversity’
By Mark KinverEnvironment reporter, BBC News
Tiny particles of waste plastic that are ingested by shoreline “eco-engineer” worms may be negatively affecting biodiversity, a study says.
So-called microplastics may be able to transfer toxic pollutants and chemicals into the guts of lugworms, reducing the animals’ functions.
An estimated 150 million tonnes vanishes from the global waste-stream each year.
The findings have been published in the academic journal Current Biology.
“We are losing a large volume of plastic and we know it is going into the environment and the assumption being made by policymakers is that this material is non-hazardous, it has got the same ranking as scraps of food,” explained co-author Mark Browne, an ecologist from the US-based National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.
“The research we have done really challenges that,” Dr Browne added, referring to the findings of lab work carried out by colleagues at Plymouth University, UK, led by co-author Prof Richard Thompson.
“Our findings show that the plastic itself can be a problem and can affect organisms.
“Also, when particles of plastic go into the environment what you find is that they accumulate large quantities of pollutants that are banned. So you have these particles themselves but also a load of nasty chemicals.”
Important roleThe team found that the tiny bits of plastic, which measure 1mm or smaller, transferred pollutants and additive chemicals – such as flame-retardants – into the guts of lugworms (Arenicola marina).
This process results in the chemical reaching the creatures’ tissue, causing a range of biological effects such as thermal stress and the inability to consume as much sediment.
Dr Browne explained that this had consequences for the surrounding ecosystem.
“If the animals are not able to eat as much then there is a change in the function of the organisms and there is an impact on the semblance of the species found in an area,” he said.
He added that the worms had earned the nickname “eco-engineers” as a result of their ability to eat organic matter from the sediment and prevent the build-up of silt.
“Through that process, it produces burrows and changes the whole assemblage of animals that live around it,” Dr Browne observed.
“This is quite considerable because if you look at the total biomass of a shoreline, about 32% can be made up from these organisms.”
He told BBC News that it was the first study of its kind to highlight the toxic risk posed by microplastics to marine organisms.
“For about 40 or 50 years, we have been finding very large concentrations of chemicals in animals. Then they started to find animals with larger concentrations of pollutants and plastics, so researchers began to establish this correlation.
“But no-one had actually shown whether chemicals could transfer from plastic when they are eaten by animals and accumulate in their bodies and reduce important functions that maintain their health.”
Revealed: how UK water companies are polluting Britain’s rivers and beaches
The most persistent and frequent polluters of England’s rivers and beaches are the nation’s 10 biggest water companies, an Observerinvestigation has revealed.
The companies, which are responsible for treating waste water and delivering clean supplies, have been punished for more than 1,000 incidents in the past nine years, but fined a total of only £3.5m.
The revelations have raised concern that the financial penalties are far too low to change the behaviour of an industry that generates billions of pounds in profits and shareholder dividends. The charge is backed by the Sentencing Council for England and Wales, which is proposing major hikes in penalties.
Pollution incidents, which have included sewage illegally pouring into a harbour for more than a year, and managers destroying records, show no sign of declining, according to data obtained from the Environment Agency (EA) under freedom of information rules. Only a third of the 1,000 incidents led to a fine (of an average of just £10,800); the rest resulted in cautions.
“In law, the ‘polluter pays’ principle is supposed to deter companies from damaging the environment, but in this case the penalties appear to be so pitiful that water companies seem to be accepting them as the price of doing business,” Joan Walley MP, chair of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), told the Observer. “The sentencing council must ensure that courts take into account the profits made from environmental crimes, and that fines have a sufficient deterrent effect.”
Simon Hughes MP, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “These figures are another indictment of the failings of our privatised water companies in England. Many of them make large profits, pay huge dividends, increase prices and pay little tax. When, in addition, these figures show they don’t deliver clean water, the public is entitled to say that our monopoly water providers are neither good corporate citizens nor good stewards of our precious environmental assets.”
In November the Observer revealed that three of Britain’s biggest water companies paid little or no tax on their profits in 2012 while generously rewarding their executives and investors. The water industry was paid £10.5bn by customers in 2010-11, according to the latest Ofwat figuresavailable, while making pre-tax profits of £1.7bn and paying dividends of £2.2bn, a 42% year-on-year rise. In 2013-14, water bills are rising by 3.5%, above both inflation and average pay rises.
One in three of the pollution incidents involved sewage. Karen Gibbs of the Consumer Council for Water said: “Sewer flooding is particularly distressing for customers, and something we have pressed the companies to address as a priority.”
The cleanliness of England’s beaches has declined in recent years, after improvements in the decades before, and most water bodies currently fail higher-level European water regulations.
The EA data, obtained by the Request Initiative and analysed by theObserver, showed the most heavily fined company in 2005-2013 was Thames Water, which paid £842,500 for 87 incidents.
Thames Water also incurred the biggest single fine – £204,000 in 2011 for 15 related incidents when untreated sewage burst from a sewer the company had failed to repair into streets and gardens in the London borough of Bromley. The company accepted the fine after an eight-year legal fight, which reached the European court of justice.
A spokesman for Thames Water said its record should be seen in the context of its running 108,000km of sewer pipes and serving 24% of the UK population. It was investing £1bn a year to upgrade its network, he said.
United Utilities Water was the most frequently punished company, with 242 incidents since 2005. It was fined £200,000 in 2012 for allowing sewage to pour into the river Keekle in Cumbria on 22 occasions.
Anglian Water was the third most heavily fined company, including £150,000 in 2008 for three incidents at Newmarket sewage treatment works. In one, the works manager destroyed data and coerced colleagues to falsify records, while another caused a major fish kill.
A spokesman for Water UK, which represents the water companies, said: “We never want to see incidents of pollution. Water companies invest billions of pounds each year to safeguard the natural environment while providing people with high-quality water to drink and healthy rivers, beaches and bathing waters to enjoy. While it’s widely accepted that there is still room for improvement, there is clear evidence of progress in many areas.”
The sentencing council’s draft guidelines direct that for deliberate pollution incidents by large companies and with the most serious environmental impacts, the standard fine should be £750,000 but could be varied between £250,000 and £2m depending on circumstances.
After the deluge: time to look again at our flood defences
The Thames and Hull barriers may have saved 800,000 homes from the floods. So why is the Government neglecting them?
In 1953, on the night of 31 January, a massive storm surge raced down the North Sea, overtopping defences along a thousand miles of coastline, and submerging 380 square miles of Britain’s broad acres. Three hundred and twenty-six people were killed.
Last night an even higher surge struck in very similar circumstances. But it did relatively little damage. The River Tyne burst its banks, a sea wall was breached near Clacton-on-Sea in Essex, and coastal areas of Norfolk witnessed the worst flooding residents could remember. But though the Environment Agency issued 60 severe flood warnings, signifying lives were at risk – nearly four times as many as in the whole of 2012, England’s wettest ever year – the only two deaths that occurred were caused by the wind, not the water.
Now, as then, three crucial natural factors coincided – an especially deep depression, very strong winds and an extremely high tide. The low pressure of the depression caused air to rise, taking some of its weight off the sea and causing its waters to bulge upwards. The winds drove the bulge towards land and down through the North Sea, causing it to rise even more as it funnelled into the seas increasingly narrow southern part. And the spring tides did the rest.
The difference between now and 60 years ago was not that the surge was less – at Hull, for example, it rose 5.2 metres compared to just five in 1953 – but that action had been taken in the meantime. Better defences had been built alone the coast – including, most famously, the Thames and Hull Barriers – with the result, says the Environment Agency, that 800,000 properties escaped the floodwaters.
It is just as well, for otherwise such a surge could have been even more damaging than six decades ago. Three million people now live around our coasts, 1.3 million of them on land at risk of flooding. An emergency exercise – Operation Triton, carried out in 2005 – concluded that a surge that overcame the barriers could drive the sea “tens of kilometres” inland, inundating “millions of hectares”, knocking out electricity supplies in some places for up to nine months, and causing a “mass fatalities”.
But the authorities should not rest on their laurels. In all 5.5 million properties in England and Wales – one in six of the total – are at risk of flooding from the sea, rivers, or heavy rainfall. And the danger is expected to get worse as global warming causes sea levels to rise and storms to become fiercer. One official study estimated that average annual economic damage from floods could rise almost tenfold by the 2080s.
And yet spending on flood defences fell sharply after the Coalition came to power, and – though some was later restored – it still remains well below the levels the Government inherited. By 2015-16, the House of Commons Select Committee for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed out in July, it will be running at £80 million a year less than the level the Environment Agency deems necessary to match the rising risk of inundations.
This is odd, particularly at a time when George Osborne is investing in infrastructure to boost growth, since flood defences yield £8 of benefits for every £1 invested, a ratio which – in the words of Lord Smith, the Agency’ Chairman, compares “robustly with virtually any other bit of infrastructure development that the Government sees to undertake”. Think of the dubious economics of HS2, for example.
Indeed ministers appear to concede the point. When the Chancellor provided an extra £120 million for flood defences in last years autumn statement, the Treasury pointed out that this would deliver economic benefits worth up to £1 billion an “help drive growth”. And Owen Paterson, the Environment Secretary, has added: “emphatically these flood defence schemes help grow the economy.”
The Government should draw lessons from last night’s relief and prioritise protection against floods. For we are unlikely to have another 60 years’ grace before we have to face the next serious test.
Threatened wildlife returns as clean-up of rivers pays off
Otters, water voles and kingfishers are returning to the rivers of Britain for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, according to an Environment Agency report that lists the 10 most improved waterways in the country.
By Louise Gray, Environment Correspondent
9:34AM BST 30 Aug 2011
For more than 100 years, sewage, pesticides and even coal dust have been dumped into rivers, killing wildlife and destroying habitats.
In the 1990s, new laws brought in by the European Union and the realisation that many of the country’s most beloved river animals were in danger of dying out forced the authorities to act.
The Thames, which was declared “biologically dead” at Tower Bridge in the 1950s, is now teeming with salmon, otter and sea trout after regulations were brought in banning pollution from factories.
The Wandle in south–west London has also benefited and is now one of the most popular urban fisheries in Europe for chub, barbel and eel.
In the North, the Mersey, the Dee and the Wear were once polluted by industry, while the Taff in Wales “ran black with coal”. They are all cleaner than they have been since Victorian times and are widely used for leisure activities.
Pollution is not the only problem. Over–abstraction – the taking of water from rivers – has also killed wildlife. On the Darent in Kent, for example, around 35million fewer litres a day are being taken than 20 years ago, increasing flows and helping to support larger populations of wildlife, including brown trout and pike.
One species under serious threat was the water vole – the creature that features as Ratty in the classic children’s book Wind in the Willows.
The water vole became extinct in many counties, but it is now returning to cleaned up areas, including the Stour in Dorset. Lord Henley, the environment minister, said £110million had been set aside to spend on improving rivers.
Current problems include getting rid of invasive plant species such as the Himalayan balsalm and water primrose.
“[With] the extensive work being done by the Environment Agency, water companies and landowners, we’re already seeing fish and mammals, including salmon and otters, thriving once more,” the minister said.
The Nar in Norfolk, one of the country’s few Fenland chalk streams, has had to recover from centuries of work to straighten, widen and deepen its natural course.
A large part of the work involved farmers reducing run–off from fields by cutting down on chemicals and ensuring spraying was more targeted.
Britain still has a long way to go before meeting EU targets for 95 per cent of rivers to be in “good” ecological condition by 2015.
The Enviroment Agency admits that a further 9,500 miles of rivers in England and Wales need to be cleaned up to meet the target.
The RSPB and WWF point out that too much water is still being taken from many of the chalk streams in the South and warn that sewage continues to be dumped in waterways.
The murky pool of big business, water and policy capture
In early 2000, a string of riots and protests broke out in the Bolivian city of Cochabamba. The “water wars” were sparked by a government decision to hand over control of water supply to a foreign-owned, private consortium. The bid process was uncontested and the revenues guaranteed for 40 years. Residents had every right to be aggrieved. Their bills jumped by 35% overnight and small farmers faced the loss of traditional irrigation rights.
The episode represents a classic case of “policy capture”. More than a decade on and the perception that big business is muscling in on water policy remains widespread. And it’s not just in far-flung corners of the developing world. This week, policymakers are discussing “sweeping new EU-US trade negotiations” that could see greater corporate control over key European water markets, according to a report by Corporate Observatory Europe (CEO), a Brussels-based pressure group. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership could lead to reduction in environmental and water quality standards too, water campaigners fear.
“The private water industry is investing heavily in lobbying to shape EU water policies,” argues Olivier Hoedeman, CEO’s research co-ordinator. “The most extreme example of this corporate bias is … where the European Commission uses its negotiating power to pressure other countries to open their markets to EU-based water multinationals.”
But the issue isn’t just limited to companies involved in commercial water services. Far from it. Most water-related conflicts around the world actually arise at the consumption phase. David Hall, a water policy expert at the University of Greenwich and co-author of a paper on corporate water practices and human rights, points the finger to heavy water users in the agribusiness, food and beverage, and mining sectors in particular.
“At a global level, the same companies that are major consumers of water promote a number of initiatives to try and advance ideas which favour their interests in these conflicts with other users,” Hall argues.
Take water efficiency. It’s difficult to argue with the idea of saving water, you’d think. And you’d be right. But what if agribusinesses use efficiency arguments as a pretext for pushing forward high-tech farming solutions, asks Hall, who claims something similar is unfolding in India’s Maharashtra state at present.
Pushing for clarity over water rights is another concept advocated by companies. Again, the idea seems reasonable, especially given the informal nature of such rights in much of the world. However, such a move easily opens the door to a “regime of structured contractual rights”, whereby water is portioned off to the highest bidder, says Hall.
Water is an undeniably emotive topic, and citizen groups have every reason to remain vigil. But big business has a legitimate interest in seeing that water is well-stewarded too. Precisely because of their high levels of water consumption, water stress represents a large and growing risk. A new country ranking by the World Resources Institute (WRI), for example, finds that water-related problems threaten more than half (56%) the world’s irrigated agricultural land.
So companies have to act. The question is how to do so in way that is perceived as fair. The CEO Water Mandate, a company-backed initiative, produced guidelines back in 2010 to address exactly this challenge. TheGuide to Responsible Business Engagement with Water Policy identifies five core principles for business to follow: (i) advance sustainable water management; (ii) respect public and private roles; (iii) strive for inclusiveness and partnerships; (iv) be pragmatic and consider integrated engagement; (v) be accountable and transparent.
Jason Morrison, technical director at the CEO Water Mandate, puts special emphasis on two of these principles: transparency and inclusiveness. Both are “daunting” concepts for most companies, which are used to “discretely and quietly” strike bilateral deals with water ministries, he admits.
“[Companies] have to be very clear about what they’re doing, with whom and why. The degree to which you’re transparent about that, it really does insulate you from the accusation of policy capture,” he argues.
Jesse Worker, associate for the Access Initiative at WRI, agrees. Only full, meaningful and ongoing disclosure will persuade the public that business “has a legitimate role to play” in water policy, he says. In addition to publishing information on the policy-making process, responsible companies should be providing data on their water use, discharge rates and other impacts as well.
As for inclusivity, inviting other interest groups to join in the policy-making process helps pre-empt those same groups accusing a company of policy capture “further down the road”, says Morrison. Collaboration isn’t easy, however. For one, it takes time. Multi-stakeholders processes can “easily take several years” to achieve an outcome, says Greg Koch, director of global water stewardship at drinks brand Coca Cola. Working within the constraints of a government’s bureaucratic decision-making process requires further time and patience, he notes.
Yet an open, participative approach to policy engagement is possible, Koch states. He points to the work of the multi-stakeholder 2030 Water Resources Group (WRG). Launched in 2008, the initiative advocates a three-stage approach in the six countries where it operates – a list that includes India, where Coca Cola has been embroiled in a conflict over water use in the past. The first two stages comprise analysing current and future areas of water stress, and then designing pilot solutions that have the potential to be scaled if successful. Both stages include widespread external consultation.
Stage three is decision time. It’s the “domain of government” to decide what interventions or policy reforms are most appropriate, and how these will be financed and administered, Koch insists. “That’s the point when we and everyone step out.”
‘Whole world’ at risk from simultaneous droughts, famines, epidemics: scientists
An international scientific research project known as the Inter-Sectoral Impact Model Intercomparison Project (ISI-MIP), run by 30 teams from 12 countries, has attempted to understand the severity and scale of global impacts of climate change. The project compares model projections onwater scarcity, crop yields, disease, floods among other issues to see how they could interact.
The series of papers published by the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that policymakers might be underestimating the social and economic consequences of climate change due to insufficient attention on how different climate risks are interconnected.
Europe, North America at risk
One paper whose lead author is Franziska Piontek of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research explores impacts related to “water,agriculture, ecosystems, and malaria at different levels of global warming.” The study concludes that:
“… uncertainty arising from the impact models is considerable, and larger than that from the climate models. In a low probability-high impact worst-case assessment, almost the whole inhabited world is at risk for multisectoral pressures.”
The uncertainties in the model are large enough that they may “mask” the risk of a “worst case” scenario of “multisectoral hotspots,” where impacts affecting “water, agriculture, ecosystems, and health” overlap in ways that could affect “all the world’s inhabited areas.”
In the worst-case analysis, “Almost the entire global population is exposed to multisectoral pressure” at global mean temperatures of around 4C higher, with “roughly 18% of the global population” projected to “experience severe pressure in all four sectors. The affected regions are in Europe, North America, and south-east Asia.”
How likely is this scenario? The study points out that:
“This worst case is rather extreme, but nonetheless it represents the upper end of the risk spectrum in light of the large uncertainties.”
Robust policy decisions to aid mitigation and adaptation strategies therefore require further research to understand “how impacts in different sectors overlap, as overlapping impacts increase exposure, lead to interactions of impacts, and are likely to raise adaptation pressure.”
Chronic water scarcity
Other papers point to significant risks that are much more likely on a business-as-usual emissions trajectory.
A study led by Jacob Schewe of Potsdam finds that “the combination of unmitigated climate change and further population growth will expose a significant fraction of the world population” to “chronic or absolute water scarcity.”
About 2.7C above preindustrial temperatures:
“… will confront an additional approximate 15% of the global population with a severe decrease in water resources and will increase the number of people living under absolute water scarcity (<500m3 per capita per year) by another 40% (according to some models, more than 100%) compared with the effect of population growth alone.”
The Mediterranean, the Middle East, the southern United States and southern China, for example, could see a “pronounced decrease of available water,” while southern India, western China, and parts of eastern Africa could see an increase.
The study results represent the multiple-model average of 11 hydrological models produced by five different climate models. While some areas like southern India, western China and eastern Africa could see an increase of available water, others like the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the southern United States and southern China, would see a “pronounced decrease of available water” without curbs in greenhouse gas emissions.
Water scarcity in turn will have a dramatic impact on agriculture. Another study in the PNAS collection combining climate, agricultural and hydrological models warns that freshwater shortages could double climate change’s debilitation of global food crop yields.
Current agricultural models estimate that climate change will directly reduce food production from maize, soybeans, wheat and rice by as much as 43 percent by the end of the 21st century, encompassing a loss of between 400 and 2600 petacalories of food supply. But incorporating hydrological models reveals that when accounting for the decline of freshwater availability, there would be an additional loss of 600 to 2900 petacalories – potentially wiping out quantities equivalent to the total present-day food supply.
Such devastating potential losses could, however, be ameliorated by more efficient use of available surplus freshwater. The paper recommends “increases in irrigation capacity and efficiency” to be complemented by “efforts to increase water use efficiency and soil conservation in rainfed systems as well, which have a demonstrated capacity to boost crop yields without further exploiting freshwater resources in rivers and aquifers.”
Other findings of the range of studies show that increases in river flooding are expected in more than half of the areas investigated, and that the frequency of drought may increase by more than 20% in some regions.
Potsdam director Prof Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who co-authored several papers in the PNAS special feature, said:
“There is an elephant in the room: current and future climate change impacts. But strangely, many people seem to be blind to it. Many decision makers prefer to turn a blind eye to global warming consequences, while many scientists tend to focus on very specific aspects of climate change. So we resemble the fabled blind men, who unknowingly touch different parts of the same elephant: grasping the animal’s trunk, one of the men is convinced he has a snake in his hand, whilst one other mistakes the tail for a rope. To recognize the animal, they must talk to each other to properly identify the individual parts and to bring them together. This is exactly what this international project does.”
DEFRA aims to tighten water abstraction rules
Ministers are planning a shake-up of the existing water abstraction licensing system in a bid to make it more environmentally-friendly and more able to adapt to the country’s water needs.
They say the current rules are not flexible enough to deal with alternating floods and droughts caused by climate change, or with increasing demand for water due to population growth.
Under the existing system, which has not changed since the 1960s, about 40% of licenses are granted as a “right” to abstract water.
Recently, the Environment Agency has started issuing fewer licenses and those it does issue are on a more cautious, time-limited basis.
However, ministers say those rules do little to protect the environment, leaving some river systems depleted and in poor shape.
In a consultation document launched by environment minister Dan Rogerson on Tuesday (17 December), DEFRA recommends limiting how much water farmers and other businesses can abstract based on how much water is available.
It also plans to give farmers with abstraction licenses a greater incentive to use water responsibly by making it easier and quicker to trade water.
Mr Rogerson said the reforms, which were expected to come into force in 2020 following legislation early in the next parliament, were crucial to safeguard the environment and allow the economy to grow.
He said it was vital farmers shared their views by the time the consultation ended on 28 March 2014 so that the government got the reform right.
Ian Ashbridge of agri-business consultants Bidwells said that while the farming industry only accounted for 1% of the total amount of water abstracted in England and Wales, they faced being hit the hardest if tough limits were introduced.
“Farmers use the greatest volumes at a time of year when it’s least available,” he said.
“Restricting water to food producers when we want them to produce more is misguided – farmers need to have their say in this consultation and make the case for water for food production.”
The consultation is available at www.gov.uk and is open until 28 March 2014.
Water companies pay billions to shareholders but little tax. Why?
Daniel Boffey, policy editor
- The Observer, Saturday 10 November 2012 19.21 GMT
- Jump to comments (43)
It will take seven years to build, cost about £4.1bn – nearly half the cost of the Olympics – and has already provoked resentment among residents, including impressionist Alistair McGowan, who fear it will blight their neighbourhoods.
Britain’s first supersewer, due to stretch 24 miles from Acton in the west of London to Abbey Mills in the east, might perform the necessary task of preventing raw sewage polluting the Thames, but it is difficult to love. And the really vexed question regarding the Thames Tideway is, who is going to foot the bill?
Simon Hughes, the Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey, where machines are due to start their work gouging out the tunnel, has long been of the opinion that it is wrong that the taxpayer should even underwrite the risky project. Surely Thames Water could afford to bear all of the burden? Had it not put something away?
Hughes’s digging into Thames Water revealed a byzantine accounting structure, with multiple companies, subsidiaries and an offshore site. He took advice from a former director of utilities at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, Martin Blaiklock, on the workings of the maze that was Thames Water’s company accounts and others.
What he discovered was a system that he believes is letting down the customers and the taxman and one that appears to be repeated across the UK, where 75% of water companies are owned by private equity firms. The first part of the jigsaw is an annual bumper dividend paid to investors or to companies which are often their own subsidiaries, sometimes offshore, and which rip out funds that publicly owned waterworks might once have kept aside for infrastructure investment.
In the five years to March 2012 Thames Water declared total dividends of £1.18bn. In the same period, Kemble Water Holdings, the Macquarie Group-led vehicle that owns Thames Water, paid out dividends to its investors of nearly £700m. Over at Yorkshire Water, a dividend of £63.4m was paid last year to its financing company. Similarly, at Anglian Water, a dividend of £193.6m was paid this year to Anglian Water Services Holdings, via a subsidiary in the Cayman Islands.
Blaiklock found that across the country between 2009 and 2011, total dividends had reached £3.3bn.
The reasons given by the companies for the dividends was the need to move funds on to pay down amassed debts sometimes taken on by holding companies through the purchase of the water companies themselves. At other times, they said, the money was needed to fund infrastructure investment and to repay shareholders for their investment. The result, though, was undoubtedly a severely weakened balance sheet, Blaiklock told Hughes.
The water companies’ shrunken finances meant they were unable to invest in large-scale projects and became ever more reliant on rises inwater bills to pay their way and on the government to support projects such as the new supersewer tunnel. This is the second part of the jigsaw, according to Blaiklock.
Anglian Water’s household customers were told this year that they will see bills increase on average by £22, from £401 to £423. Thames Water customers have been warned that their bills are likely to rise by as much as £80 a year to help them pay their part of the bill for the new tunnel. Yorkshire Water has told its customers that the average water and sewerage bill is going to rise by £21 from £340 to £361, in order for it to maintain the quality of its performance.
A utilities sector populated by weakened water companies unable to significantly invest and dependent on big price rises approved by the water regulator Ofwat was surely not what Margaret Thatcher had in mind when her administration privatised the waterworks. That the chief executives of the companies concerned have been showered with performance-related bonuses in recent years could be considered to add insult to injury.
But it is the final piece of the jigsaw that is perhaps the most concerning and which Hughes is now urging the influential Commons public accounts committee to investigate. Despite the billions of pounds swilling about the industry, Hughes discovered that little corporation tax is being paid by our major water companies – in some years none at all.
Thames Water enjoyed a tax rebate of £79.6m in 2011-12 and paid just £26m in tax the previous year, despite a net cash inflow for that year of £943.1m. Yorkshire paid just £2.9m last year and £11.1m in the year before, despite an operational profit of £303m. In 2012, for the regulated part of Anglian Water’s business, the company paid no corporation tax at all. In 2011 it paid £500,000 corporation tax on the profits and in 2010 it was £1.4m.
The companies say that a combination of interest repayments (on debt) and capital allowances has been used to offset or defer tax payments. Hughes and Blaiklock fear there is more to it than that, despite the water companies’ protestations.
An alternative world is proposed by Hughes: if Thames had paid no dividends to shareholders and placed its profits in the banks or suitable investments, they would today have the £4bn needed to cover the costs of Tideway tunnel.
An unlikely scenario perhaps. But even if Thames had paid shareholders only 50% of what they have received as dividends since 2000, they would have £2.1bn set aside. Thames rejects this reasoning, arguing that such large-scale projects always involve the state, pointing out that a new company has been set up by the government to build the tunnel, and adding that if Thames had to foot the bill it would need to pass on the huge costs to its customer.
The other companies say they have behaved responsibly, that their debt is simple a necessary evil of being a utility company. Hughes, though, is determined to keep on digging. In a letter seen by the Observer to the Commons public accounts committee, which is due to quiz the bosses of Starbucks and Google over tax avoidance, Hughes writes: “The aggressive capital structure implemented by Thames has resulted in the company becoming so indebted that it does not have the financial strength to invest in the large capital projects.
“As you may know there is currently a proposal to build a tunnel through London to collect the sewage overflows from our ageing Victorian sewerage network. The current estimate for the cost of this project is £4.1bn.
“Moody’s, the credit rating agency, has said that given the high gearing of the company even limited involvement in the Tunnel project will have a negative effect on Thames Water’s credit rating. As Thames is required by its licence conditions to keep an investment-grade credit rating it cannot participate in the tunnel project.”
The question Hughes poses in his letter is simple: “Is there a particular problem in the water industry, which is a regulated monopoly with high capital requirements and which allows companies to reduce the capital stock of the utility while lowering their tax liability, and does this requires a policy response from the government?”
In other words, is there something fishy about the way the water industry does its business? At the very least there appears to be a case to answer.
East coast surge: homes fall into sea, waves rip at pier, wildlife struggles
The telephone probably saved Ray Mooney’s life. His brother called just as he was rushing to the back door of his home. Mooney, 55, took the call, and the back of his immaculate wooden chalet fell into the tumultuous sea below.
Mooney’s house was one of five destroyed in Hemsby, Norfolk, by a storm surge higher in some places than the great flood of 1953, which devastated East Anglia and killed 307 people in the UK.
This year’s similarly lethal combination of onshore winds, high spring tides and a storm surge caused by a North Sea depression, did not cause such loss of life or property, chiefly because of defences erected after the 1953 floods and a well-executed evacuation plan.
But some were still left defenceless against the power of the sea that trashed a historic pier, flooded a newly-acquired nature reserve and devastated beach-side business along the Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire coastline.
A property that has fallen into the sea due to the cliff collapsing in Hemsby. Photograph: Stephen Pond/Getty ImagesMooney’s neighbours, Steven and Jackie Connolly, were in the local pub when they heard the cliff was going. Drinkers formed a human chain to help them rescue their sofa, Christmas presents and three-month-old kittens before their home of seven years was swallowed by the sea.
“Suddenly we heard a shout ‘it’s going, it’s going’ and we watched our kitchen get ripped apart,” said Steven Connolly. “The whole house collapsed before our eyes. We’re devastated at what we’ve lost but at least me, Jackie and the kittens are safe.”
The houses at Hemsby were unusually affordable, mostly bought for less than £60,000 because of their proximity to sea. But many locals criticised the failure of the authorities to build the concrete defences that prop up much of this crumbling coastline. Instead, residents funded a DIY scheme in which concrete blocks were to be put on a 200m stretch of beach. Some blocks were placed there at 5.30pm on Thursday in a futile last-ditch attempt to stem the surge.
“Do you know what it’s like going to bed every night fearing what tomorrow brings?” said Hemsby resident Angela Lewis, 57. “It’s scary. How much longer have we got a home for? Will we have a home for Christmas? All we want is for someone to help us. People have nowhere to go. We can’t start again – we can’t afford to buy anywhere or rent anywhere.”
Collapsed houses lie on the beach after a storm surge in Hemsby. Photograph: Darren Staples/ReutersA local businessman has offered Mooney and the Connollys rent-free accommodation on a nearby chalet park but the homeless of Lowestoft, in Suffolk, are also looking for a new place to stay after their 27-bed hostel was closed by flood damage.
Emma Ratzer, the chief executive of the Access Community Trust who runs the hostel, said that an estimated £50,000-worth of damage to the ground floor meant it would be closed over Christmas.
“The people on the ground floor have lost all their belongings too, so we have been out buying them new socks, pants and everything,” she said. “The first thing we need to do is buy 27 more beds.”
Robin Adams outside all that remains of his house at Hemsby, Norfolk. Photograph: Patrick Barkham/GuardianThe floods also sank the last surviving end-of-the-pier show in Britain. Waves ripped holes in historic Cromer Pier and pulled bench seating in the Pavilion theatre into the sea, forcing the cancellation of the pier’s Christmas show – until council officials declare the pier safe again.
“There’s probably a reason why people don’t have theatres on the end of piers,” said general manager Rebecca Wass. “But we’re not giving up yet. The show will hopefully go on in some capacity.” An alternative venue in Holt is being lined up.
The coast was littered with the remains of beach huts and beach cafes, with boats thrown onto the quay at Blakeney and flooded shops in Wells-next-the-Sea.
Even the fish couldn’t escape: the stricken residents including sharks and a turtle from the sea-damaged Sea Life Sanctuary in Hunstanton were being rescued and transferred to another centre in Dorset.
Wildlife has also been hit by the storm. Before it struck, there were 430 seals and pups on Horsey beach; yesterday, volunteers counted just 177. At Cley, in North Norfolk, a new nature reserve just purchased by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust was flooded, a bird hide had disappeared and holes punched in the shingle sea bank threaten the whole of the marshes.
While Brandon Lewis, Tory MP for Great Yarmouth, whose constituency includes the Hemsby area, pledged to help residents fight for more funds for coastal defence, some people were remarkably phlegmatic about the storm.
“We must have learnt our lesson from Canute – we’re not going to stop the sea,” said Robin Adams, standing in the wooden frame of all that remained of his house at Hemsby.
Despite contemplating a life without a home, Mooney was similarly calm. “Mother nature, you can’t have a go,” he said. “You can shout as much as you want but it will have it’s way. It’s not right or wrong, it just happens. Sometimes it will do a beautiful thing, sometimes it’s just cruel.”
From this, I have gained a sense of potential repercussions for wildlife and UK civilians as a result of poor water management and over abstraction. It will likely that weather condition will become more severe as well the potential for high tides and large scale flooding within the next few months.
I intend to continue my research, in particular other potential locations and narrative ideas to develop. Prior to my presentation I had started to consider areas around Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Morcambe and other surrounding areas, I intend to branch out further into other nearby or rather accessible sites that could act as a comparison, possibly a connecting area that sources large amounts of water throughout the North West of England.
I will update with further results.