Water and Natural Beauty – Howard Davies, CEO, NAAONB

Howard Davies delivered a presentation on Water and Natural Beauty – The relationship between water and landscape and how we got to this point.

View the video of Howards’ presentation at the conference.

I want to start with the rather depressing account of a conversation I had with the institute of British Insurers about three years ago. We were discussing the role of land management in flood alleviation, and we touched on the principle of insurers working with land managers to actually reduce flood risk, and whilst the detail of the conversation has been purged from my memory, the closing remark from the representative of the insurance industry remains with me – “you would have us installing smoke alarms in houses next”. When short term business objectives rail against common sense and longer term business sustainability I find this rather depressing.

But the future doesn’t actually look like that. We are already seeing superb examples of business, particularly the water companies, adopting a more sustainable approach to, not only directly managing our water resource but, managing the more complex systems of social and economic interrelationships and dependencies that underpin its health. The importance of a more integrated approach to the environment is now obvious to many industries, and this is being reflected in government policy, such as the ecosystem approach. Protected Landscape organisations go one step further. You have always been at the forefront of a push for sustainability and have always been about integration, partnership, collaboration and building virtuous circles. As cross sectoral partnerships who understand policy integration you are there. You have an immense contribution to make to this positive future.

But what about water and natural beauty? Why are Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and National Parks important when it comes to water? More than this – why are they especially important?

I want to start to answer this with a reminder of just how much water we have. Only 3% of the world’s water is fresh water – and by that I mean not saline. Of this 3%, much is locked up in the ice caps and large quantities are inaccessible through geography. We actually only have access to about 1% of the world’s fresh water, and most of this is lost as it runs back to the sea, or ends up in inaccessible rivers and then runs back to the sea. This leaves us an estimated 12,500 cubic km on which to survive. It doesn’t sound a lot, especially when we know that 70% of the water we use goes into food production… but we are actually only using a third of the water available to us. On the face of it, we don’t have problems, but the reality is very different. Water isn’t evenly distributed, nor does it reach us in a predictable manner. As the climate changes so this gets worse. We have expanding populations and growing industry in areas where we don’t have enough water, and we have areas of high rainfall where the resource disappears out of reach before we can get our collective act together. We might have plenty of water, but often it seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But water has always had a tendency to behave unpredictably; this is why so much of our civilisation has been built around systems for controlling water. Clean, fresh water is essential for life and has always been a component of desirable, hospitable, landscapes. Whether you take the Arcadian classical landscape, or the more picturesque approach to what is desirable, water is often there. It is no surprise that our notion of natural beauty is tightly linked to one of life’s essentials. It would be rather odd if it weren’t. And it’s not just the value of fresh water that the notion of natural beauty reflects; it also picks up on the life supporting properties of the marine environment and what is essentially the other end of the water cycle.

AONB partnerships and National Park Authorities are important because they have long recognised water as an important element of a functioning landscape. Historically this may have been primarily because of water’s aesthetic, spiritual, and immediate economic value, but with a better understanding of natural processes, the landscape’s value also lies in the vast aquifers hidden below them that provide water for towns and villages, or their capacity to soak up and hold water and prevent flooding downstream, or in their role as tourist destinations along the coast where high quality landscapes and the allure of water come together for maximum economic benefit. When it comes to water, AONBs and National Parks are especially important.

But let’s not pretend everything is rosy. Public spending cuts are having an increasingly debilitating impact on many of those services most heavily dependent upon them. AONB partnerships have taken their share of the hits and have done their best to roll with the punches. Some, however, are now looking unsteady on their feet. It would be a travesty if we lost the baby with the bathwater; if we let collapse the very mechanism we have been nurturing and growing, adjusting and perfecting to do this very job of managing land in a sustainable way, since the designation of Gower, the first AONB, in 1956.

I don’t think that this will happen though. In many ways we are being far more innovative than we were even five years ago and applying all that we know best about partnership working, collective action, sustainable development and the inherent value of the British landscape, to the current challenges we face. The protected landscape approach is not just a good one, it’s an excellent one. We know it works….it’s up to you to make it live, to make it really come alive. Essentially it’s all in your hands.

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