East Anglia: Water shortage battle ‘must be won for wildlife and tourism’

Sunrise at Slaughden - but the water shortage could threaten our natural highlights

Sunrise at Slaughden - but the water shortage could threaten our natural highlights - Credit: Archant

One of East Anglia’s rarest and most precious resources – the water that sustains many of the region’s most important wildlife, landscape and tourism assets – is under intense and increasing pressure from rising demand and dwindling supplies.

That was a stark message to emerge from a national conference held in Ipswich yesterday.

Water, hailed as the lifeblood that supports many of East Anglia’s unique wildlife riches, runs through the very veins of the region’s Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. But delegates were left in no doubt that the enormous challenge of managing the resource in the face of climate change, impending sea level rises and an increasing population had to be met if the areas were to continue to be so vital to the region’s economy.

More than 100 delegates were attending the three-day National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Landscapes for Life conference at University College Suffolk’s Waterfront Building. They represented the AONB “family” of protected areas in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with academics, water company, Environment Agency, Natural England and National farmers Union chiefs also attending. The conference, hosted by the Dedham Vale and the Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONBs together with the Norfolk Coast Partnership and the Broads Authority, had water as its theme and its significance for the protected landscapes – and its scarcity – were frequently referred to by a host of high-powered speakers.

Dr Charles Beardall, the Environment Agency’s eastern area manager, spoke of the “enormous challenges” ahead for a “semi-arid” region that was already Britain’s driest, with 34% less rainfall than the national average. By 2080 rainfall was expected to be 20% less but demand would increase with a growing population. Agricultural demands for water were expected to double by 2050 and climate change was expected to take its toll. With every degree Centigrade rise in temperatures there was a 27% rise in agricultural demand for water, he said.

The pressures on areas such as AONBs were exacerbated by sea level rise and it was expected that in 50 to 100 years’ time about half the region’s coast would be under a policy of no intervention or managed realignment.

A key speaker was Richard Benyon, the Government’s Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries. He said East Anglia faced the “special challenges” of balancing the water needs of a large, intensive agriculture sector and those of an increasing population with rainfall that was in some areas similar to sub-Saharan Africa. Coastal erosion and climate change that was “perhaps more apparent than anywhere else in the UK” were additional challenges, he said.

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The National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty offered a “coherent voice” for the protected landscape and carried out “innovative measures that achieved genuine results” in response to such challenges, but he warned against “resting on our laurels”.

He advocated public and private sector partnerships and added: “It is a win-win situation if in the long term we can see whole ecosystems in a holistic way and make the case for change both locally and nationally.”