Avoiding a perfect storm in our rivers

6 September 2023

Brown trout hunt the clear waters of the small River Nar. Rare and globally important, the Nar meanders through the downs and fenland of north-west Norfolk and is one of a number of rivers deemed a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI), due to its unique transformation from chalk to fenland river. Farming stretches around, with over 75% of the catchment under arable and pig farming across the valley. Food production relies on clean water, we rely on these same catchments for drinking water, and nature needs them to maintain a rich biodiverse ecosystem. But the strain is showing as across the UK rivers are dying and the ecosystems they support are being compromised by intensive agriculture.

Globally, agriculture uses around 70% of the world’s fresh water supplies. Worryingly, the UN estimates that by 2030 demand will exceed supply by 40%. The recent heatwaves decimating large parts of Europe have added to the pressures on these precious reserves. A perfect storm is brewing with less water available to produce more food to feed our growing global population, to provide clean drinking water for everyone, and to preserve nature.

Action is needed now.

In Norfolk, initiatives are underway to counteract the impacts of agriculture on these most precious chalk streams. Led by the Norfolk Rivers Trust, the Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap - convened by WRAP - runs a collective action project in Norfolk and the Cam and Ely Ouse River catchments that provides an opportunity for food and drink companies to play their part. One is Pilgrim’s UK award-winning LSB Pigs, a pork producer renowned for its animal welfare, which is undertaking innovative grass-cover trials to protect the river Tat, a tributary of the River Wensum and another SSSI in the area.

Rather than traditional stubble fields, the team - led by award-winning farm manager Rob McGregor - put their pigs on different grass-covers. Herbal leys and grass were introduced to enrich pig welfare as well as to protect soil health, prevent manure and nutrient run-off, and increase biodiversity. The grass prevents excess nutrients from reaching the vital chalk aquifer underground and helps temperature regulation, keeping the pigs cool in hot weather.

As we walked around on a recent visit, red kites and kestrels hovered in the cloudy skies. “Before we were looking after the pigs but not the soil.” Says Rob. “It was a desert, with deep gullying from the rainwater running off.” Now he proudly points out the wildflowers and increased biodiversity attracting more pollinators to the fields, alongside skylarks, linnets and shelducks. Rob comments that the pigs, grazing peacefully, many with piglets, are also more productive and content. “It’s a tough industry financially, so it’s exciting to be involved in creating this positive legacy”, he says.

Before, pigs rooting would rapidly turn the stubble to bare earth, increasing compaction and soil degradation. Intense rainfall washed topsoil and sediment off the bare fields, along with manure rich in nitrates and phosphates. This posed a major risk to both rivers and the biodiversity they support. Excess nutrients stimulate algae growth, and sediment covers the gravelly beds smothering fish eggs and aquatic insects. It makes the streams shallower and prone to overheating and deoxygenation. Introducing grasses and a range of wildflowers stops this.

Pilgrim’s UK LSB Pigs supplies Waitrose and Coop, who they say are loyal customers paying a fair price. With support from Norfolk Rivers Trust, LSB Pigs has been able to invest in these simple but innovative nature-based solutions.

Just down the road, in Sporle, the Norfolk Rivers Trust recently helped install clever channelling and holding areas or ‘attenuation ponds’ on farmland. This system slows down water run-off from the fields, preventing silt from reaching the nearby chalk streams by acting as a natural holding bay for the water so sediment settles, and the water can infiltrate back to the ground or evaporate.

But such water stewardship urgently needs to ramp up.

WRAP launched the Water Roadmap in 2021 to provide a pathway for food & drink businesses to address water risk and drive progress towards the sector’s Courtauld 2030 target of 50% of the UK’s fresh food sourced from areas with sustainable water management. Our last progress report showed less than half of all businesses submitting data had undertaken a water risk assessment or set water-related targets, and even fewer had identified water risk hotspots.

The Courtauld 2030 Water Roadmap has seven collective action projects like the one in Norfolk in the UK and overseas. We aim to have 20 by 2030, enabling more businesses to engage with NGOs, farmers, local government and stakeholders to tackle water risk in some of the most important food & drink sourcing areas.

Seventeen businesses have funded collective action projects to date - engaging more than 90 stakeholders and 700 farmers with 34 farm management plans now in place. As a result of nearly 40 interventions, from tree-planting and pond creation to invasive species clearance, more than 1.783 billion litres of water was replenished to local communities and nature. An increase from one billion the previous year.

But we need more to come forward and act. Because while we cannot live without water, we treat it as a free and limitless commodity. It’s imperative that more businesses see the value in protecting this precious resource otherwise one day, the tap will run dry.

Originally published on Business Green How food firms are working to avoid a perfect storm in UK rivers

WRAP at World Water Week in Stockholm

WRAP Specialists, Vicky Pudner and Sophie Harrison attended World Water Week in Stockholm. They watched talks from world leading experts on topics such as the influence of water in geo-politics and accelerating water investment, as well as improving engagement with companies, target setting and examples of basin management.

Vicky and Sophie raised awareness of the role of collective action by sharing case studies in a WRAP presentation alongside WWF, IDH, CDP, H&M, The Nature Conservancy and the Pacific Institute/CEO Water and by facilitating a WWF led workshop on collective action.

The prevailing and powerful message for the future of WRAP work in the world of water was that “water is about human lives; it is about values and it is about what we are prepared to lose.”

The need for water is universal and critical, yet is it seen as a cheap commodity. How we react to the water crisis is going to determine what the future looks like. We need to acknowledge the real pressures that will soon, if not already, be beating at our door. When it comes to water, we have no time to spare.

WRAP wants to harness the enthusiasm and momentum to ensure progress; pooling resources and knowledge to push and promote collective action.