Government and key stakeholders debate water rights and climate change


Representatives from the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency, and the National Farmers’ Union were brought together with water industry and academic experts by the Foundation for Law, Justice and Society on Tuesday at an Oxford workshop to discuss the right to water in the face of increasing pressures associated with climate change.


The workshop, entitled Economic Rights and Regulatory Regimes: Is there still a ‘right’ to water? addressed the evolving environmental policy context of the UK government’s proposed reforms to the licensing system for abstracting water in England and Wales.


Dr Bettina Lange of the Centre for Socio-Legal Studies (Oxford University) and Dr Mark Shepheard from McGill University (Canada) convened the event, which was held at Wolfson College, Oxford before an audience of over fifty scholars and practitioners working on water and environmental issues.


In advance of the United Nations World Water Day on 22 March, which this year focuses on water cooperation, the workshop provided a timely opportunity for senior strategists at Defra, the Environment Agency, water companies, and the NFU to discuss the issues raised by increasing regulatory intervention and water scarcity linked to population growth and climate change. The event also enabled participants to formulate responses to the evolving environmental policy context of the UK government’s White Paper ‘Water for Life’ and Draft Water Bill announced last year and currently entering a period of assessment and consultation, which was outlined by Defra’s Head of Future Water Resource Management Project Henry Leveson-Gower.


Drs Lange and Shepheard opened the discussion by announcing the findings of their UK pilot study, which maps how farmers think about a right to water and identifies key factors that shape such conceptions.


Also in this panel, Professor Karen Morrow from Swansea University, provided an overview of the common law applicable to water regulation, environmental law, and human rights law, before describing new and more radical approaches of granting rights to nature to protect water resources. 


Henry Leveson-Gower, Head of DEFRA’s Future Water Resource Management Project, Water Availability and Quality Programme, opened the second panel, which explored the use of market mechanisms for promoting water stewardship.  He explained the government’s plans for reform and the need to improve the flexibility and efficiency of the current system for abstracting (extracting) water to cope with long-term risks of climate change and increasing populations. Three economic incentive-based options being considered by the government were presented, ahead of a consultation and impact assessment later this year and a proposed Bill expected in 2017.


Alice Piure, Strategy & Policy Analyst at Anglian Water, followed by presenting the findings from a research project conducted by Defra, Anglian Water, and the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, that explored the use of various types of water trading and their contribution to promoting water stewardship.


Dr Chris Decker, who chaired the session, then introduced the “leading voice in water trading in England and Wales”, former government economic advisor Jon Stern from City University London, who discussed market-based approaches to dealing with periodic water scarcity, in particular the sale of raw water from one region to another.

The third panel offered academic perspectives on state regulatory approaches to water stewardship. Donald McGillivray of Sussex University gave a historical overview of the approach taken by the common law to regulate water stewardship. He argued that the current regulation gives mixed legal messages about water rights and sustainability as there is no real clarity regarding the regulatory goals.


The leading water lawyer Professor Bill Howarth of Kent University also presented a mixed picture, citing the statistics that given by the Environment Agency Chairman Lord Chris Smith that one in five days in 2012 saw flooding and one in four days drought. Prof Howarth pointed to the significant advances that have been made in anticipating and managing risk of unpredictable events such as drought and floods, but argued that much more must be done to effectively enhance ‘water security’, saying that “UK water legislation is a model of disintegration”.

Professor Bill Howarth argued that much more must be done to effectively enhance ‘water security’, saying that “UK water legislation is a model of disintegration”.

Dr Sarah Hendry from Dundee University brought the session to a close with a comparative perspective from Scotland. She charted the huge shift from water management as a private right to a public responsibility, arguing that a strong regulatory regime such as that provided by Ofwat is necessary to oversee the balance of private and public management of water resources.


The issues raised during the course of the day formed the basis of the closing roundtable discussion, which also sought to engage policymakers, farmers, and industry to identify the future research agenda in water stewardship. The Environment Agency’s Chief Economist Ronan Palmer and Paul Hammett, the senior policy advisor for the National Farmers’ Union, joined Prof Howarth and Drs Lange and Shepheard to debate the challenge of reconciling the potentially competing regulatory goals of ‘water security’ and ‘food security’.


Ronan Palmer identified risk management and water security as the key challenge for the Environment Agency in response to droughts and floods caused by climate change, while Paul Hammett made the case for British farming, arguing that there is large-scale over-abstraction of water in the EU, and “we need to ‘bring home’ food production and source locally as much as possible”.


The workshop forms part of the FLJS programme in Regulation, Law and Governance, which assesses the current weaknesses of the regulatory system and identifies measures for future reform of both regulatory regimes and the markets in which they operate. 


PowerPoint presentations and audio podcast recordings from the day can be downloaded from the links on the right. A series of policy briefs written by participants will be published on the Publications pages over the coming months.


The next event in the FLJS programme in Regulation, Law and Government, entitled Media Law after Leveson, will be held at the Law Faculty on 12 April.


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