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Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL)


1 August 2018 – In the aftermath of the summer's global heatwave on Earth Overshoot Day, Dr Gemma Cranston reflects on the urgent need to preserve the UK's water supplies.

Rapid population growth and climate change are putting enormous pressures on our precious natural resources. 1 August marks 2018’s Earth Overshoot Day – the date at which human consumption of Earth’s resources surpasses the quantity that our planet can renew in the entire year.

This summer’s heatwave has highlighted the necessity of careful water preservation. Scorched crops, dried up riverbeds and depleted reservoirs across the UK have raised urgent questions about the efficacy of our water management systems. A recent study from the Environment Agency has reinforced these concerns, warning of potential supply shortages by 2050 if we do not improve the management of our water resources.

Too much of it and too little, with  increasing pressures to water affects us all; from farmers to land owners, water companies to businesses and consumers. By failing to act we face fundamental risks to our water supply, increased flooding, unhealthy rivers and poor quality drinking water.

Catchment management as a solution to tackling such pressures is nothing new. There are many examples of where it has been implemented successfully, often delivering benefits for society that go beyond the management of water. Close collaboration between companies has led to integrated water management across in both urban and rural environments. In London the cooperation between Thames Water and Thames21 has enabled sustainable urban drainage projects and  the construction of wetlands to improve water quality and reduce flood risk.

The Catchment Based Approach has also been effective – enabling private, public and third sector organisations to work together to meet joint objectives aligned to investment plans and sustainability targets such as end of pipe solutions. These include river restoration and farm advice as showcased by Anglian Water and The Rivers Trust. 

But these promising developments have not yet been implemented successfully on a large scale with multiple stakeholders.

To date, effective catchment management projects in England and Wales have each focused on tackling single issues, such as pesticides, phosphorus or nitrates.

Catchment management approaches need to go further – particularly if they are to deliver the ambitious goals of the government’s 25 year Environment Plan, which calls for a step change in how water catchment areas are managed.

This will only be possible through a multi-stakeholder approach that recognises the importance of collaboration across the public-private boundary.

In June of this year major businesses such as M&S, Nestlé, Coca Cola and Asda as well as number of water companies including Anglian Water, Thames Water and Yorkshire Water and NGOs such as The Rivers Trust came together to recognise and tackle the collective challenges we face in preserving and managing water supplies.

A declaration, signed by over 80 organisations, demonstrates the widespread support for sustainable and collaborative solutions that harness natural processes and deliver real benefits for the environment, economy and local communities.

Read and sign the declaration here and explore the latest research from CISL’s Natural Capital team.


About the author

Gemma Cranston

Gemma is Director of the Natural Capital Portfolio, bringing together influential companies with a global reach to address their dependencies and impacts on natural capital and enable companies to translate this into a tangible business context.

With a Ph.D in Ecological Footprints, Gemma previously worked as the Lead Scientist at Global Footprint Network in Geneva.  


Articles on the blog written by employees of the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.


Zoe Kalus, Head of Media  

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