Fresh water – a scarce, threatened resource

By Gary Roberts (with support from Neil Bailey, Isabel Bishop and Charlotte Henderson of Earthwatch Europe.)

Water is life, without it we are nothing. Worryingly, it’s an increasingly scarce and threatened natural resource with global freshwater biodiversity declining at twice the rate of oceans or forests. Whilst Earth is often described as the ‘blue planet’, perhaps surprisingly, only 2.5% is fresh water. Of this, no more than 1% of the world’s fresh water is available for human use. Alarmingly, this 1% is in rapidly declining health. Abstraction, urbanisation, climate-change and pollution have all caused dramatic declines in freshwater biodiversity and habitats within the past 50 years.

‘Chemical cocktails’

To our shame, this issue is especially acute within the UK. England’s rivers, in particular, are again the focus of media coverage (January 2022), as MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee warn of a ‘chemical cocktail’ of raw sewage, agricultural fertilizers run-off, slurry and microplastics entering freshwater systems. In England, only 14% of rivers meet ‘good ecological status’ criteria. This rises to 33% for rivers in Northern Ireland, 40% in Wales and for Scotland’s rivers it’s 66%. Improvements to freshwater ecology are urgently required throughout all four UK nations and are increasingly critical for rivers in England. 14% is a shocking, embarrassing statistic. Equally shocking, is how many people are unaware to the extent of this global problem. However, this urgency is becoming increasingly apparent, reported on and exposed, as evidenced:

  • House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Water Quality In Rivers Fourth Report – January 2022.
  • A recent RSPB report found 43% of people believe that the UK’s fresh water systems are in good ecological condition.
  • WWF (February 2021) warned that UK is “no exception” when it comes to the loss of freshwater fish species, as a report exposes the dire outlook for populations across the world.
  • Within UK waters, burbot and sturgeon are extinct, salmon have suffered significant declines and the eel is critically endangered (WWF, February 2021 press release re: World’s Forgotten Fishes Report).
  • In 2020, The Guardian reported water companies in England discharged untreated sewage into rivers more than 200,000 times during 2019.
  • Environment Agency (2020) reported that all rivers, lakes and streams in England are polluted. This comes as their budgets have been cut by two-thirds since 2010, making it impossible to effectively monitor the situation.
  • 38% of waterbodies in the European Union are affected by diffuse pollution (UN Water, 2015).
  • According to UN World Water Development Report (2017), it is likely that globally over 80% of waste water is released to the environment without adequate treatment.

Public Anger continues to grow. People do care about their water – its health and quality.

As we increasingly use ‘blue spaces’ to enjoy wild-swimming, paddle boarding, rowing, canoeing, fishing, walking – it’s surely not unreasonable to expect our water bodies to be safe to do so. However, people often feel powerless to do anything. This is why, environmental charity, Earthwatch Europe is developing a blueprint to build its global Freshwater Watch Programme.

Making the invisible, visible

Earthwatch provides vital support to safeguard freshwater ecosystems and improve the health of these habitats by empowering citizen scientists and communities to collate and use water quality data to protect water bodies. To improve this situation, Earthwatch seeks to understand where and why problems are occurring through the development of scientific datasets.

Water quality is managed by governments and agencies but there are often gaps in their data, so changes can go unnoticed. Many people don’t understand what they personally can do to help. There is a lack of connection. Those who are engaged want to do more, but rarely have access to the data and evidence they need to demand change. For Earthwatch, the starting point is to monitor water quality. To make the invisible visible.

This provides evidence from which pollution is identified so decisions can be made to help improve the management of our precious freshwater.

Protecting our fresh waters

Since 2012, Earthwatch has developed and managed its highly-respected, successful FreshWater Watch Programme. Throughout these ten years, FreshWater Watch has grown to support 14,000 citizen scientists in the global collection of 30,000+ datasets. Through engagement, empowerment and mobilisation of community citizens Earthwatch has helped protect 1,200 water bodies worldwide from UK chalk streams to Lake Tanganyika in Africa.

Earthwatch’s extensive database has enabled them to research global trends, explore local issues, engage communities and share data with governments to support water conservation.


The value of robust citizen-science is demonstrated through Earthwatch’s Spring 2021 WaterBlitz project, which collected 1,568 water quality measurements across the UK’s Thames Valley, in Dublin, Luxembourg and Paris. Collated data provides alarming results:

  • 52% of waterbodies measured had high nitrate levels and 23% high phosphate concentrations.
  • Thames Valley: 70% samples showed high nitrate levels.
  • Luxembourg: c.28% of sampled waterbodies had highest phosphate levels.
  • Dublin: 26% showed highest records of litter in or near water.
  • Paris: 37% of waterbodies measured showed high concentrations of nitrates and 19% high phosphate levels, with only 1% of waterbodies measured in Paris located near agricultural land.

A new global freshwater watch movement

For Earthwatch to fulfil its vision of achieving clean, healthy freshwater it has to generate more data and connect more people with their local water bodies. By 2030 Earthwatch aims to engage 100,000 people to safeguard 10,000 water bodies across Europe and Africa, to ensure the FreshWater Watch movement protects freshwater ecosystems everywhere and for everyone. To achieve this, it must engage with a greater number and diversity of communities and create a true FreshWater Watch movement.

Building momentum through citizen science

Armed with this data, communities have, since 2012, successfully worked together with decision-makers to protect and better manage our precious freshwater. Earthwatch now plans to build on this foundation to deliver its 2030 strategic goal and gather momentum by raising awareness, engage new communities and deliver solutions that value our freshwater. Through robust citizen science, Earthwatch aim to build and support a global network of local communities so people become more actively aware and care about their local freshwater bodies across the UK, Europe and Africa.

Importantly it will create connections with and between communities. FreshWater Watch provides stewardship to dedicated groups who want to monitor the health of a specific water body and take action to restore and protect it.

Groups have access to:

  • Water testing kits.
  • Online platform.
  • Mobile app to collect data.
  • Training resources including video tutorials on how to take samples.
  • Use of recognised methodology to influence authorities and/or polluters.

Strategic goal

With conservation science at its heart, Earthwatch has set a series of ambitious targets to deliver by December 2023. These are to connect 2,500 citizens and 50 community groups with their local freshwater environments, collate data from 500 water bodies to proactively support change and initiate actions at 30 water bodies that improves their water quality. To achieve these, Earthwatch seeks funding support, partnerships and people to engage with Freshwater Watch to conserve our
scarce fresh waters.

Watching George Monbiot’s Rivercide documentary provides a shocking, disgusting insight into the extent our rivers are being polluted, by whom and what we all need to do to ensure our water resources are clean, healthy, pure and ecologically diverse. Protecting our freshwater ecosystem services makes good financial sense.

In 2012, the Office for National Statistics estimated that UK freshwaters had a value of £37 billion to our economy.

These ecosystem services are provided for free by nature. Why do we continue to poison them?

About the Author

With a passionate interest in our natural world, Gary has enjoyed a 36-year career connected with nature, biodiversity conservation, rewilding, environmental and international issues. Gary is Director/Founder of Earthwild Partnership Ltd – an innovative communications, sustainability, management company.


Earthwild website:
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