Press Statement: Audit office report underscores The Rivers Trust’s concerns for water quality in Northern Ireland’s Rivers and Lakes

The Rivers Trust has highlighted the alarming findings of the Northern Ireland Audit Office’s comprehensive report on water quality in Northern Ireland’s rivers and lakes, published this week. 

Matthew Woodard


This NI Audit Office report echoes the findings of The Rivers Trust’s recently published State of Our Rivers report, which had already identified a range of pressures negatively and cumulatively impacting water quality in Northern Ireland.

The most recent Audit Office's report reveals a stark reality: the target for 100% of surface water bodies in Northern Ireland to achieve 'Good' or 'High' ecological status by 2027 will not be met, with only 31% of river water bodies and 14% of lake water bodies currently meeting these criteria.

The detrimental impact of excess nutrient levels, particularly phosphorus, arising from agricultural practices and the operations of Northern Ireland Water (NIW) have been highlighted as significant contributors to the decline in water quality.

The Rivers Trust All-Ireland Director Mark Horton said: "The Northern Ireland Audit Office report highlights the pressing need for a cohesive strategy to improve our water quality. The problems with water management are systemic and longstanding. This includes everything from lack of enforcement and convictions for water pollution, through to a chronic lack of investment in water infrastructure.

“To date, there has been a fragmented and underfunded approach to our water infrastructure and to protecting this precious societal asset, and we are now dealing with the consequences as evidenced by the ecological disaster that is Lough Neagh. This is a stark example of what happens when a waterbody is over-pressurised and under-protected. And it's not just Lough Neagh. As this report shows, the pollution problems are widespread across rivers, lakes, loughs, and the groundwater in Northern Ireland.

“As Northern Ireland, Ireland, and Britain’s leading non-regulatory freshwater environmental charity, The Rivers Trust has long been calling for an overarching, properly funded, joined-up strategy for dealing with this developing crisis. As pressures on water quality are only going to increase, we urgently need a unified plan that brings together all efforts and stakeholders, ensuring our actions are more effective and lead to monitored, measurable improvements in the health of our waterways.

“Despite the poor current state of our river health, I remain optimistic because, as this report shows, almost all the pressures negatively impacting our rivers, loughs and groundwater are caused by human activities, and it is therefore within our gift to reverse some of these impacts.

“In fact, this report highlights some of the successful work The Rivers Trust is already delivering. This includes working directly with farmers to install water-friendly interventions on farms as part of the Sustainable Catchment Programme funded through DAERA. This work identifies and reduces or eliminates pollution at source is proving to be effective in the catchments where it is being trialled. It also contributes to the cost-effectiveness of farm businesses by reducing overhead costs.

“We know what the pressures are. We know what the solutions are. We now need the political will and investment to develop an effective strategy to tackle the problems before they get worse.

“With Stormont up and running again and with the support of political representatives providing legislation and funding, I believe we can work together to change behaviours and initiate catchment-scale, nature-based solutions to tackle the pressures polluting our freshwater resources.”

Mark concluded: "This report is a clarion call for urgent collective action. In almost 10 years, the ecological status of Northern Ireland’s rivers has not improved; in fact, it has deteriorated. The time to reverse the tide of water pollution is now. Due to the physical scale and key importance of sustainable and reliable freshwater sources for the health and prosperity of our entire society, it demands a united effort from all sectors.

“This Audit Report further emphasises the importance of community involvement and notes the importance of catchment-scale groups such as local Rivers Trusts in protecting and improving water quality and how this should be supported and extended. Water is a shared resource, and its protection requires the commitment of every individual, farmer, business, and policymaker in Northern Ireland."

Given the critical role that rivers and lakes play in our environment, economy, and community health, The Rivers Trust urges immediate action based on five key recommendations:

  1. Support and Incentivisation for Sustainable Agriculture: Promote and financially support farming practices that better use nutrient resources on farms and reduce nutrient run-off into water bodies. This includes the adoption of riparian buffer zones, cover cropping, and the careful management of livestock near watercourses delivered through funded agri-schemes.
  2. Investment in Wastewater Infrastructure: Immediate and substantial investment in upgrading NIW’s wastewater treatment works to cope with current and future population demands and climate pressures. This includes the elimination of combined sewer overflows (CSOs), which are a major pollution risk during heavy rainfall and wet and dry spill duration monitoring at discharge points to watercourses.
  3. Enhanced Regulation and Enforcement: Stricter regulatory oversight and enforcement on across a range of sectors including agricultural and wastewater treatment are essential. A significant increase in the frequency and scope of inspections across Northern Ireland is required to deter pollution. Better monitoring and data are needed.
  4. Community Engagement and Education: Launch comprehensive public awareness campaigns to engage communities in water conservation efforts and reduce pollution from household sources.
  5. Cross-Sectoral Collaboration for Water Management: Foster collaboration between government departments, the agricultural sector, environmental NGOs, and the public to create and implement a holistic water management strategy that addresses the interconnected issues impacting water quality.

The Rivers Trust is committed to working alongside government bodies, community groups, and all stakeholders to implement these recommendations. We believe that through collective effort, innovation, and sustained commitment, we can achieve significant improvements in the quality of Northern Ireland’s rivers and lakes, ensuring they are preserved for future generations.

For more information and to access the full report, click here

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