Overton Blog

Unlocking the power of rivers: why public policy should care

Rivers are essential for sustaining ecosystems, providing freshwater resources, supporting agriculture, facilitating transportation and offering recreational opportunities. Humans are heavily reliant on rivers, but also subject to how they respond to changes in their natural state. 

World Rivers Day takes place every year as a celebration of the world’s waterways. It aims to raise awareness of the value rivers hold - socially, economically and ecologically. It also aims to encourage improved treatment and management of these invaluable environments. In this post, we wanted to take a look at the value of rivers, why and how they’re managed and the challenges of ‘getting it right’ in public policy.

A disclaimer - the author of this post works for Overton as an analyst and moonlights as a part-time PhD student studying freshwater policies…

How the importance of rivers is reflected in the policy-research interface

We ran a keyword search for ‘river’ within policy documents from UK government sources, which returned 18,353 documents across 49 sources. 6,758 of these (36.8%) cite ‘stuff’ - whether that be another policy document or scholarly research. We then looked at the scholarly articles which are cited by this sub-set of policy documents and here’s where it gets really interesting!

For this set of 6,758 policy documents, there are 67,738 scholarly articles which are cited. We took a look at the report for these articles and where they have been cited elsewhere in the world. A couple of highlights: 

  1. 67% of these are cited by a single source: The UK Government. Remember, there were 49 UK sources we identified as citing this set of scholarly articles, so this is perhaps more of a skew than we might expect (or maybe not?)*
  2. Globally, this same set of scholarly articles which appear in UK documents also feature in policy documents authored by 1,595 policy sources across 157 countries. 69% of articles had been cited more than once. Small world, eh? 
  3. Of this set of scholarly articles, we find that Government Agencies cite 21% of these, making them number 1 in terms of the organisation types which cite research on this particular topic. 

Returning to look at the research-policy interface in the UK - within this subset of scholarly books and articles, UK researchers feature in 17,715 (26%). Interestingly, when we look at the publication years of citing policy documents in the UK, we can see that the net numbers of documents have more or less doubled over the period of a decade. 

So why the increased interest? We can’t say for sure without further analysis - but there have definitely been some challenges which have drawn a lot of political attention within that time…

Challenge 1: Individuality & scale

In the UK alone, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology estimates that there are nearly 1500 discrete river systems, forming over 200,000km of watercourses. Each river is unique due to the differing hydrology, ecology and water chemistry and combinations thereof. Rivers are inherently intuitive, and this individuality is also reflected in how they respond to disturbances to their natural state. 

The challenge here then, is in creating a policy (or set of policies) which can manage 1500 individual systems, spanning a whole nation and accommodating a litany of political and environmental factors operating at different scales, with different ‘weightings’ depending on local context. Bear in mind that the policy needs to be holistic, universally understood and deliverable by a multitude of stakeholders. It would do no good for example, to have one enormous parameter with the ability to be applied in any context with no ability to determine actual freshwater ‘health’  against what we’d expect as freshwater scientists- nor would it be feasible to have one bespoke for a section of river, for time of day, weather conditions and so on.

Getting the balance right is key. In the past, the ‘balance’ has been more of a ‘see saw’ or ‘catapult’ - depending on the  extent to which there is/has been a conflict between stakeholder needs and our ability to achieve ‘good’ freshwater health. The challenge of this and the issues with previous policies are now gaining traction. The previous EA report found only 14% (!) of our rivers in the UK are classed as being ‘in good ecological health’ and none meeting chemical standards, which generated media attention and a renewed focus on future freshwater policies in the wake of Brexit.

Challenge 2: Changes to freshwater pressures

One of the main challenges facing water management policy in the UK is water scarcity. Parts of the country, particularly in the south and east, are already experiencing water stress due to population growth, climate change and changing weather patterns. To address this issue, the government has developed a Plan for Water: our integrated plan for delivering clean and plentiful water which was published on April 4th 2023.This document sets out a range of measures to increase the resilience of the water supply system, reducing leakage from water pipes and increase the use of water recycling and desalination technologies. 

Another challenge facing water management policy in the UK is flooding. The country has experienced a number of high-profile floods in recent years, which have caused significant damage to homes and businesses. To address this issue, the government has developed a National Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy, which sets out a range of measures to reduce the risk of flooding and manage the impacts when floods occur. These measures include improving flood warning systems, building flood defences, and promoting natural flood management techniques.

Water pollution is also a major concern in the UK, with agricultural runoff, industrial discharges, and sewage overflows all contributing to the problem.  Lately, there has been widespread media coverage of these issues. An internet search of “river news” and produces interesting results - you may see phrases like “an utter disgrace” “too polluted to swim in” and “sewage pollution crisis” alongside various calls for political action. Though in some cases, there has been commentary that swimming in sewage used to be acceptable. On the latter, it’s worth noting that separating human faeces from drinking water was described in 2022 by England’s CMO the chair of Ofwat and the EA as “one of the greatest public health triumphs of the last 200 years". They also explain “the public health dangers are in addition to the ecological and environmental impact which forms the basis for much regulation”.

Challenge 3: Evolving Understanding and Practices

In addition to these policy initiatives, there are a range of other measures being taken to improve water management in the UK. These include promoting the use of sustainable drainage systems (SuDS) to manage stormwater runoff, encouraging the use of water-efficient appliances and fixtures, and supporting the development of new technologies to improve water treatment and recycling. Of course, these developments are welcome, but the challenge for policy makers is in keeping up with the latest evidence-based practice - and evaluating its performance in a highly individualised context in a timely way - is likely to be tricky, to put it mildly. We can see this in the publication year trends - comparing the date(s) in which research was published with the date the policy document was authored in. If we use the ‘cited in’ filter in Overton and look at the publication dates for everything that was cited by policy documents in 2023, we can see that there is quite a range - with a ‘drop off’ as we approach the current year. This is in part to be expected. We would expect a higher probability of citation with increased article age. It does, on the other hand, potentially reflect an issue for policymakers in terms of keeping up with the very latest evidence. 

We’re having a good think about how our data could help with these kinds of issues - and as always, if you have any questions, thoughts or would just like a quick chat, please feel free to get in touch! Or explore our data for yourself in the app.

Author notes

*A technical term in freshwater management, I’m sure…

**We can only present this data to be taken at face value - to identify ‘root cause’ would require further qualitative analysis by a subject expert. Unfortunately for me, I’m not quite there yet, so if you have any thoughts please feel free to get in touch!

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