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Water crisis ‘a ticking time bomb’, Environment Agency chief says

The Independent logo The Independent 22/02/2022 Zoe Tidman
MPs said last month rivers in England were ‘in a mess' - Getty © Getty Images

MPs said last month rivers in England were ‘in a mess'

- Getty

The UK must “think differently” to tackle its “ticking time bomb” water crisis, the head of the Environment Agency has said.

Sir James Bevan called for left-field ideas to clean rivers, which have been under scrutiny over levels of pollution.

MPs said last month England’s waterways were “in a mess”, with many containing a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, farming waste and single-use plastic that risked harming swimmers and wildlife.

In a speech on Tuesday, Sir James said there had been good progress in protecting and enhancing waters over the past couple of decades, but a different mentality was needed to “shift the dial”.

“Two years ago I said that all of us need to think differently if we are to tackle successfully the new reality of the climate emergency,” the Environment Agency chief told the World Water-Tech Innovation Summit.

“Today I want to make the same appeal to think differently in order to defuse another ticking time bomb: the water crisis.”


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Sir James endorsed an idea for a network of citizen scientists to help monitor rivers, with a platform for people to input water quality readings which others could verify in “a kind of Wikipedia of Water”.

He added: “I like the concept. I like the principle it embodies: that all of us are responsible for the state of our waters. I like the practical benefits it could deliver: better understanding, in real time, of what’s happening in our rivers allowing us to act better and faster.” He said the Environment Agency was looking into doing something along these lines.

The organisation’s boss said he also liked another idea of getting energy from mine water, which carries pollutants into rivers as it leaks out of abandoned mines.

“But what if we could turn that problem into a solution? A solution that helps local communities and tackles a global problem,” Sir James said.

As well as the January report raising the alarm over the quality of rivers, another last year said rivers, lakes and streams in England had some of the lowest water quality in Europe.

Last week, a regulator wrote to water companies to say bosses should have bonuses reined in if the firms dump sewage in UK waterways.

Sir James also urged the public on Tuesday to refrain from flushing wetwipes down toilets or pouring cooking oil down the sink – both of which pollute waters – as he said ensuring clean and plentiful water was the responsibility of everyone.

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