Mark Lloyd stood next to river

Mark Lloyd reflects on rivers at the CIWEM Flood & Coast Conference

Mark Lloyd delivered the following speech reflecting on his commitment to protecting and improving rivers and the collective action required to make lasting changes.

Jayne Mann


On the 7th June 2023, we were proud partners of the CIWEM Flood and Coast Conference.

To open the event, our CEO, Mark Lloyd delivered the following speech reflecting on his commitment to protecting and improving rivers and the collective action required to make lasting changes.

I want to start by reminding everyone that we are in the midst of multiple global crises which are bigger than anything faced by any previous generation, and which threaten our very existence on this planet. The climate and nature emergencies are colossal, real and present. It’s our responsibility to respond to their magnitude accordingly.

We’re here to talk about the rising risks of coastal and fluvial floods and how we can manage them better. But in our search for solutions, I believe we must also consider the fact that nature is disappearing faster than ever before, much of which is driven by pollution, drought and a lack of natural habitat.

We must consider that our solutions to flood and coastal erosion could make a significant contribution to mitigating climate change, if we adopt nature-based solutions, rather than pouring carbon-hungry concrete.

“The climate and nature emergencies are colossal, real and present. It’s our responsibility to respond to their magnitude accordingly.”

Mark Lloyd

We must also consider that our water resources are so threatened we face the very real prospect of running out of water within our lifetimes. In 2012, London came within a few weeks of having standpipes and water tankers on the streets, just as it prepared to host the world for the Olympic Games. As it happened, the heavens opened and by the autumn, Ministers were being despatched in high vis jackets and wellies to the Somerset Levels and armchair hydrologists everywhere called for rivers to be dredged as a solution.

I was brought up in Somerset in the 1970s. The lovely River Yeo and its brilliantly named tributary the River Wriggle wound their way through the fields at the bottom of our garden. I spent much of my spare time messing about in these rivers, skimming stones, building dams and fishing. Before I was 10 however, the water board arrived unannounced with diggers and straightened several miles of it, cutting off the meanders and leaving a wide, shallow, uniform, trapezoidal drainage ditch, which was intended to keep the water in the channel, hurry it out to sea, and stop it flooding fields in the flood plain.

My friends and I rescued fish in buckets from the artificial oxbow lakes and released them into this featureless new world. This was a very traumatic experience for me and it inspired me to spend the rest of my life working to protect rivers. It was even more traumatic for the river. I visited it again recently, and although it has started to carve a more natural course into the engineered banks over the subsequent decades, it had lost its resilience and I didn’t see a single fish stir. The surrounding land was more aggressively farmed, closer to the edge of the river. The water had a mysterious milky hue and the abundant wildlife I remember vividly from my youth had largely disappeared. The straightened, widened river, poor soil structure and field drainage all just served to hurry water faster off the land and down to the Somerset Levels.

It's easy not to notice these changes and to succumb to shifting baseline syndrome, or to wonder if one’s memory of rivers teeming with life are rose-tinted with age.

However, the statistics confirm that there’s been a dramatic decline in wildlife since the 1970s and that wildlife in freshwater has declined fastest. If we continue on our current path, our children will be subject to a terrifying ecological collapse with far reaching consequences. The frog doesn’t notice the water gradually heating up until it’s boiled alive.

“If we continue on our current path, our children will be subject to a terrifying ecological collapse with far reaching consequences.”

Mark Lloyd

At The Rivers Trust we believe passionately in restoring natural processes to our river catchments to reverse this decline in nature, slow the flow, purify polluted water and release it steadily as cool baseflow to keep our rivers flowing and taps working during times of drought. That’s why we’re excited to be a strategic partner at this conference, with its theme of scaling up nature-based solutions to build resilience.

The Rivers Trust movement is nearly 30 years old, and we now have 65 member Trusts working throughout Britain and a growing portion of the island of Ireland to deliver projects at a local catchment scale that will, collectively, build the resilience of our rivers nationally. We’re all busy recreating and rebuilding wetlands, working with farmers to restore healthy soils that can absorb water and atmospheric carbon at a vast scale, fencing out livestock from rivers, removing or easing weirs and dams, re-wriggling rivers, building sustainable drainage systems, clearing up litter and educating the public and politicians about sustainable water management.

As charities, we have to fund these projects with whatever money we can find, and so we work in partnership by necessity and default, piecing together funds from multiple sources. It’s not uncommon for a single project to benefit from philanthropic foundations, government agencies, individual donations, private sector sponsorship and water company investment all at once.

In the past few years, we’ve developed this principle with an exciting new private finance model on the River Wyre in Lancashire, where the people of Churchtown had suffered three “1 in 50” year floods in the space of 20 years. Like many communities, they didn’t qualify for engineered flood defences because the cost benefit ratio simply didn’t stack up. We secured over £1m of capital from private investors to spend roughing up the upper catchment of the Wyre, with tree and hedge planting, new ponds and wetlands and leaky dams. These ecosystem assets generated ecosystem services for a wide range of partners in the public and private sectors, who were willing to sign up to pay for them on an annual basis over 10 years, paying back the initial investors with interest. This pioneering green finance approach recently won a coveted Edie Award and we’re working to replicate it with larger schemes in Cumbria, Leeds, on tributaries of the River Wye and here on the Severn.

There’s been a lot of media attention on raw sewage overflows in the past year, which is very welcome for those of us who have been highlighting this problem for decades. Water companies have committed £10 billion to reduce spills very significantly over the next 7 years and they’ll spend at least this again on improving treated effluent. Some of these funds will have to be spent on simply increasing treatment and storage capacity at sewage treatment works. But, in many cases, those funds could be used to create natural soakaway areas to slow the flow of water and reduce the loading on sewers. This would not only help reduce spills, but it would also restore nature and cool the air in urban areas, recharge aquifers and reduce surface water flood risk. To tackle sewage and flooding issues, we need to transform the acres of impermeable surfaces in our urban areas into nature-rich sponges that can contribute to the establishment of Nature Recovery Networks.

We simply have too many huge challenges facing society to try and solve them one at a time. Historically, we have had pots of funding and plans for individual issues, but this approach has failed to make the links with other initiatives and in many cases funding spent on solving one issue has exacerbated another problem. For example, we’re spending public money subsidising maize production to power anaerobic digestors, and the area under maize has increased from 8,000 hectares to 183,000 hectares. Maize fields create compacted, bare soils in the winter that cause flooding and pollution, which then requires more public funding to solve further downstream.

The easiest, cheapest and quickest solution to flooding and pollution lies in our management of soils, which also have the capacity to sequester vast amounts of carbon long before carbon capture technology has any chance of becoming a mainstream reality.

Every river has countless plans governing its future, some of which contradict each other and many of which never get implemented. This approach gives the impression that lots of work is being done, but it’s nothing better than chaos with Gantt charts and it’s a spectacular waste of public funding.

We need to take a much more integrated approach, and deliver projects at scale which address multiple problems at the same time, with multiple funding sources. The UN secretary general António Guterres recently described the approach to tackling climate change as “doing everything everywhere, all at once”. This will require us to change fundamentally the way that we work, get out of our siloes and find out how we can address our own organisation’s priorities in ways that help others achieve theirs. Because ultimately, we all benefit from a joined up, sustainable approach.

Nature-based solutions provide the integrated solutions we seek, but we have to deliver them at a huge scale for them to be strategically effective, and this means bringing together budgets for flood protection, farm subsidies, local nature recovery strategies, offsetting and whatever else we can find to restore nature at a grand scale across our rural and urban landscapes. This will require co-operation between water companies, flood agencies, local authorities, highways agencies, private companies, NGOs and local communities.

Change isn’t easy, and fundamental change is even harder. We’re not big on revolutions in this country, but we desperately need one for our management of the environment if we are to get out of the mess we are in.

“We need to take a much more integrated approach, and deliver projects at scale which address multiple problems at the same time”

Mark Lloyd

The Rivers Trust and 20 other partner organisations recently secured funding from the OFWAT breakthrough challenge fund for a major new £8.9m, 5-year project to identify and break down the barriers to the implementation of nature-based solutions at scale. We want to develop a pipeline of projects worth hundreds of millions of pounds that will drive a fundamental new approach by water companies and their regulators, linking the tens of billions they will spend over the coming decades with the billions that others will spend, to deliver catchment-based, nature-based solutions.

Our Catchment Systems Thinking Co-operative project has similarly convened 30 partner organisations to bring together river and catchment data from multiple sources into a common framework. If we can expand this to business as usual across the nation, it could usher in a new era of transparency, accountability and open data, to drive understanding, consensus and cost-effective management of the environment.

We’re also working with the Environment Agency and Defra at the moment to make the case for more joined-up, collaborative governance systems that will drive greater collaboration, synergy and coherence.

For those of you who think this is all just a pipe dream, take a look at the Danish Water Forum. In Denmark this integrated, collaborative approach has been highly successful in providing clean water, flood protection and nature recovery.

I’m very much looking forward to the talks and discussion today. My challenge to you is to think about how whatever you are doing could be joined up with what someone else is doing to help us rise up and meet the huge crises facing us and our children, together.

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