Expressions such as ‘going with the flow’ and ‘trying to push water uphill’ were coined with good reason.  That may seem trite, but to me it sums up why effective water management is both local and organised around the natural catchments which have been shaped by a combination of natural forces and human activity over millennia.

Ladies and gentlemen, I could not be more pleased and grateful that the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, working with three of our largest water companies, has managed to develop today’s Summit – and that, amazingly, you have all been persuaded to attend! And at this stage I would like to admit that it is all my fault this is happening but I never thought so many people would actually turn up on the day.

Now it really is enormously encouraging to see such a distinguished gathering and, of course I am especially delighted that Lord Gardiner of Kimble, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Rural Affairs & Biosecurity has been able to join us.  I need hardly say that I am very sorry I could not be here all day myself and therefore rather tactlessly missed the keynote speech by Richard Benyon, who was a distinguished and long-serving Water Minister.  And during his time as Minister he introduced the catchment-based approach – and after five years this is clearly delivering valuable results.

Now as most of you will not know, I have been interested in the concept of catchment management for a very long time!  It was actually about 25-years ago that I discovered the Munich water company was encouraging farmers in its sensitive catchment area to convert to an organic system.  Their concerns about rising levels of pollutants from agriculture led the water company to offer not only financial and technical support to the farmers, but also to work with local communities to develop marketing and supply chains for their produce.  Now before you tell me that things are different here – I accept that in some ways they are.  80% of the water for Munich comes, believe it or not, from springs in an area of just 1,600 hectares.  But the over-arching principles of paying for ecosystem services and engaging with communities to protect and enhance catchments ‘in the round’ seem to me to apply universally. Which was why, 25 years ago, I tried to draw attention to the Munich example back here in the United Kingdom.

Well, I have been fortunate enough, in my own case, to see examples of water management in action in many parts of the world, including reducing the impacts of saline intrusion into Australian groundwaters, in Western Australia, and recreating ancient check and step dams in Rajasthan to capture monsoon rains and recharge depleted aquifers.  I have also met the victims of flooding in Queensland, Cumbria, Somerset and elsewhere, as you can imagine.  And in every case, the key to finding and implementing sustainable solutions was through local action, engaging communities and helping them to see the bigger picture and understand how they could make a difference.

In a world where once unimaginably vast quantities of energy and data can be transported over long distances in no time at all, it is only too easy to forget that water is extraordinarily heavy to move around, except when it is going where it wants to go – which is invariably downhill. Expressions such as ‘going with the flow’ and ‘trying to push water uphill’ were coined with good reason.  That may seem trite, but to me it sums up why effective water management is both local and organised around the natural catchments which have been shaped by a combination of natural forces and human activity over millennia.

You may be interested to know that, in preparing for this event today, I came across a speech I gave to some 700 members of the Institute of Water & Environmental Management.  I said then that “if there was ever a time when water engineers and scientists lived relatively quiet, peaceful lives supplying water to appreciative customers and disposing of waste water without difficulty, then it certainly cannot have been in the last three years.”  I also mentioned that “two exceptionally dry years have highlighted the fact that we have been abstracting too much water from some of our rivers and ground waters, particularly in the chalk regions, in order to meet consumer demand.  As a result, some beautiful and much-loved streams have ceased to exist altogether or have been reduced to mere trickles.  Valuable wildlife sites are drying out and, of course, low flows make what is left of a river more vulnerable to pollution and de-oxygenation.”

Ladies and gentlemen, if any of you are wondering why you cannot remember that speech – indeed any of my speeches – it was delivered in 1990…

And against that background, the publication of today’s ‘Catchment Management Declaration’ is hugely encouraging, if more than a little overdue.  It is particularly good, if I may say so, to see the recognition that resolving the issues is beyond the reach of any single sector or organization and that the answer lies in a collaborative, multi-sector approach through which water is managed sensitively as a shared resource, recognising that every catchment is different. The list of signatories is already impressive, at more than fifty, including some very big names, and I can only say I hope it will continue to grow.

Having said that, I am under no illusions about the scale of the challenge.  The declaration refers to a step change, and that is absolutely what is required because the situation is serious.  Our rivers and wetlands provide a wide range of ecosystem services; they are the pre-eminent wildlife corridors, places of great beauty, important for many varieties of recreation and tourism and the source of water for human consumption, agriculture and business.  Yet, if we are honest, they are neither in good shape for most of these activities, nor are they resilient to the increasing demands of climate change and population growth.

In terms of delivering that step change, the links to the Government’s ambitious ‘25-Year Environment Plan’ are surely quite important and the excellent projects on show here today demonstrate what can be done, at a significant scale – which has really impressed me.  Healthy rivers for wildlife and people and, if I may say so, for the oceans, which are so often out of site and out of mind when it comes to all of these issues associated with pollution and run-off – are of such fundamental importance that they deserve our full and thoughtful attention – and I know that this is reflected in the results of water company research into their customers’ views.

Yet, ladies and gentlemen, one of the lessons from today is that there are clearly a great many opportunities to do things better.  This includes not choosing ‘end of pipe’ solutions in situations where we could realistically tackle problems at source – for instance, through water companies incentivising farmers to adopt different agro-ecological practices, as I have just seen on Simon Righton’s farm, just outside Moreton-in-Marsh here, rather than paying to clean up drinking water.

And it seems to me that further and faster development of the catchment-based approach is essential.  Achieving a common understanding of current and future issues among all stakeholders is not only the key to making an effective plan, it also brings into play essential local knowledge about river catchments and the way they are used. 

In rural catchments, the predominant land use will almost always be for agriculture, so how can we make sure that good catchment management makes a positive contribution to the sort of farming that we are going to need in the future? 

As a small island nation it surely makes sense to play to our strengths, achieving maximum added value through environmentally-friendly farming that delivers high quality produce with an engaging story.  That will require a greater emphasis on local distinctiveness and culture with – for instance – the use of native breeds on family farms, but also giving maximum priority to the health of the soil, which, of course, we now know is directly linked to its capacity to absorb and retain carbon.  Yet that strong environmental story will not be credible unless it is accompanied by rivers and streams that are attractive and in good health.  

So the water companies, of course, have a major role to play in catchment management and, on the basis of what I have seen today, they understand that and are keen to do more.  As participants in just about every stage of the water cycle their active involvement is essential.  But making the step change we need is going to require new forms of partnerships, with active participation from regulators, Government and Local Authorities.  Not everything is going to work, so risks will have to be taken and the consequences accepted.  It may well be necessary to adjust inventive structures and adopt new market mechanisms in order to achieve the potential benefits.  And it will certainly be essential to develop metrics that identify what is being achieved, for whom, and at what cost.

And incidentally, I also think more could be done to build on the remarkable success of some catchment partnerships in mobilising community volunteers.  The many Riverfly monitoring groups around the country and the splendidly-named “Outfall Safaris” in urban areas have shown what can be achieved through enthusiasm and commitment and enlightened leadership.  The results certainly suggest that it would be cost-effective to encourage a lot more of this activity.

So ladies and gentlemen, ensuring a healthy future for all our rivers will quite clearly require unprecedented levels of collaboration, with genuine cross-sector working coordinated through dynamic and well-resourced catchment partnerships – and again there are some excellent examples here today.  There is obviously a huge amount to be done, but the enthusiasm is encouraging, as is the wide range of organisations that are keen to be involved.  I would have thought that it really is in everyone’s interests to make catchment management succeed – so I can only hope the Declaration will be just a start.