A really interesting interview at United Utilities as part of my dissertation really got me thinking about the practical effects that a disconnection from nature can have in environmental policy.
Having good quality, clean, drinking water running at will from your tap is a blessing I think we all forget to count. It only takes a day visiting a country without that privilege to remind you how lucky we are. Of course the inconvenience we experience chasing around for bottled water on holiday is a pale imitation of the hardship and life threatening health dangers faced every day by the 748 million people for whom life without safe, clean water is a daily reality.
So when we turn on our taps, how many of us thinks of the huge infrastructure that collects, cleans and transports that water, let alone the myriad of environmental, land use and political drivers at play? To take this a stage further, and look at how it impacts my current project, how many visitors to the Lakes will see it as the provider of water on a massive scale? United Utilities alone provides water to 7 million people and over two thirds of this water comes from upland surface water reservoirs in the Lake District, the Pennines and north Wales.
How many of those Lake District visitors will think about the part vegetation plays in protecting those water catchments, the effects that farming, tourism and other land management has directly on the quality of that water, and of course indirectly on our water bills and ultimately the availability of that clean water. How many of them are really aware that we are in effect weighing up the contribution of hill farming in supporting a valuable cultural landscape, supported by payments from a European agricultural policy, against the potential ecological and water management benefits which could be realised through a reduction in sheep numbers on the fells?
This is all before we even get into the role that the uplands have in managing flooding. Though I thought he undersold the interest people have in the environment, a recent blog by George Monbiot highlighted how the recent flooding suddenly, but too briefly thrust environmental issues to the forefront of people’s consciousness. Sadly, the level of understanding, and engagement with these higher level issues, is too quickly washed away by political expediency and seemingly simple, but ultimately ineffective solutions like dredging.
There is an opportunity in water management which could potentially see uplands managed for better water quality and carbon capture which could see biodiversity gains. The water framework directive, alongside increasing knowledge of water catchments, flood mitigation and carbon capture could potentially drive exciting opportunities for a new type of cultural landscape, but this is not without its tradeoffs and might involve a lake district which looks a bit different, significant changes in the drivers given to farmers, their values and lifestyles, and the traditional cultural livelihoods, which make up a great part of the way today’s lake district is. Its a complicated picture, but it relies on the opinions of tourists visiting the Lakes regarding the future aesthetic of the park, and a broader public whose tax money supports both agricultural funding and national park itself. It is unfortunate then, that this general public is most likely uninformed about the interconnections of these issues, perhaps disinterested, and, as is often the case, disconnected from the services which the natural world provides in our every day lives.
Water is just one piece of the complicated jigsaw of Lake District National Park management. I’ve been asking people what they think the Lake District is for, an intentionally open ended question to which people quite justifiably answer, ‘people’, ‘nature’, ‘wildlife’, ‘landscape’. The difficulty is of course, that they all are right, but this week, ‘water’ seems like a pretty convincing answer.