Soil degradation and soil contamination – UN raises awareness of the importance of soil

United Nations has designated 2015 as the ‘International Year of Soils’

33% of the world’s soils are facing moderate to severe degradation, says the UN

Jan 30th 2015

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations is promoting a number of events throughout 2015 to raise awareness and understanding of the importance of soil for essential ecosystem functions and food security. 2015 was declared as the International Year of Soils by the 68th General Assembly of the United Nations held in 2013.

International Year of Soils 2015 has a number of objectives, including:

  • To raise full awareness among civil society and decision makers about the profound importance of soil for human life
  • To educate the public about the crucial role soil plays in food security, climate change adaptation and mitigation, essential ecosystem services, poverty alleviation and sustainable development
  • To promote investment in sustainable soil management activities that will develop and maintain healthy soils for different land users and population groups
  • To press for rapid capacity enhancement for soil information collection and monitoring at all levels (global, national and regional)

A further aim is to support effective policies and actions for the sustainable management and protection of soil resources and to strengthen initiatives in connection with the United Nation’s ‘Sustainable Development Goals’ process. The FAO says that soil is considered to be a non-renewable resource because it does not renew itself at a sufficient rate in the human time frame. One centimetre of soil, it says, can take hundreds to thousands of years to form from parent rock. Its importance for food security is based on the estimate that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. As food availability relies on our soils, healthy and good quality food can only be produced if our soils are healthy. “A healthy living soil is a crucial ally to food security and nutrition,” says the FAO.

What is a healthy soil? The FAO says soil health is the capacity of soil to function as a living system. Healthy soils maintain a diverse community of soil organisms that provide a multitude of ecosystem services, including the breakdown of waste and pollutants, the recycling of essential plant nutrients, and helping to prevent groundwater and surface water pollution. A healthy soil also contributes to the mitigation of climate change by maintaining or increasing its organic carbon content.

However, it is estimated that approximately 33% of our soils are facing moderate to severe degradation and the FAO says that the current rate of soil degradation threatens the capacity to meet the needs of future generations, unless we reverse this trend through a concerted effort towards the sustainable management of soils.

Soil degradation refers to a reduction in the capacity of soil to function as a living system. Soil degradation can take a number of forms, including soil erosion, soil salinisation, nutrient depletion, a loss of soil biodiversity, soil pollution, soil compaction, and the loss of organic matter. The FAO says that soil contamination implies that the concentration of a substance (e.g. nutrient, pesticide, organic chemical, acidic or saline compound) in soil is higher than would naturally occur. Soil pollution refers to the presence of substances at concentrations above threshold levels where they become harmful to living organisms. Threshold levels and soil quality standards are determined by regulatory bodies. In the UK, soil quality standards and the implications for human health risks are a controversial subject – see our news item “CIEH warns of moves to relax standards for contaminated land remediation” for more details.

The FAO says that human pressures on soils are reaching critical limits that jeopardise our future. Consequently, “there is an urgent need to raise awareness of the importance of this strategic resource.” For more information on International Year of Soils 2015, see the Food and Agriculture Organization website.


Global Risks 2015 – Environmental risks take centre stage

Global Risks 2015 features water crises, extreme weather events, and the failure to adapt to climate change in the top five risks facing the world for the next ten years

Jan 29th 2015

The World Economic Forum has published the 10th edition of its Global Risks report this month. The report is published annually and features an assessment by around 900 experts via a Global Risk Perception Survey of the top global risks facing the world over the next decade. The risks are assessed in terms of likelihood and in terms of impact. In terms of impact, the experts rated water crises as the greatest risk facing the world for the next ten years, whilst in terms of likelihood extreme weather events was rated second with interstate conflict coming out on top.

The report defines a global risk as “an uncertain event or condition that, if it occurs, can cause significant negative impact for several countries or industries within the next ten years.” Based on this definition, 28 global risks were identified and grouped into five categories: economic risks, environmental risks, geopolitical risks, societal risks and technological risks.

Global Risks 2015 notes a “radical departure” from previous years in that economic risks feature only marginally in the top five. It presents a picture of the evolution of the highest risks of highest impact and highest likelihood over the ten years since the report was first published. The changing landscape “indicates a shift over past years away from economic risks in general to environmental risks – ranging from climate change to water crises.” The report continues: “While this highlights a recognition of the importance of these slow-burning issues, strikingly little progress has been made to address them in light of their far-reaching and detrimental consequences for this and future generations.”

The report places water crises into the category of societal risks rather than environmental risks and it defines a water crisis as “a significant decline in the available quality and quantity of fresh water, resulting in harmful effects on human health and/or economic activity.” The report states:

“Global water requirements are projected to be pushed beyond sustainable water supplies by 40% by 2030. Agriculture already accounts for on average 70% of total water consumption and, according to the World Bank, food production will need to increase by 50% by 2030 as the population grows and dietary habits change. The International Energy Agency further projects water consumption to meet the needs of energy generation and production to increase by 85% by 2035.”

As well as analysing three “risk constellations” (the interconnections between geopolitics and economics; the problem of urbanisation in developing countries; the governance of emerging technologies), Global Risks 2015 features three case studies that illustrate good practice in responses to extreme weather events and climate-change adaptation: innovative methods of water management in Australia, community-based resilience strategies in the USA, and an extensive flood management programme in Germany.

The World Economic Forum says: “Over the past 10 years, the Global Risks report has raised awareness of the dangers from the interconnected nature of global risks and has persistently called for multi-stakeholder collaboration to address them. By offering a broad-ranging overview from risk identification and evaluation to practices – from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’ – this year’s report aims to provide the most comprehensive set of insights yet for decision-makers in its decade-long history.”

To see the report, go to the World Economic Forum website.


Photo: Flood damage in the Karlin district of Prague. In August 2002, floods devastated large swathes of Europe. The floods caused considerable damage to the cities of Prague and Dresden. Via Wikimedia, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

7,000 homes will be lost to coastal erosion over the next 100 years, says the Environment Agency

Properties worth over £1 billion will be sacrificed to rising sea levels because it is too costly to protect them

No compensation for home owners, says the Government

Jan 28th 2015

The Environment Agency estimates that 7,000 properties worth over £1 billion will fall into the sea over the next century due to coastal erosion. The properties will be sacrificed to rising sea levels because the cost of protecting them would be far greater than their value, says the Agency. The figures are contained in an unpublished report seen by The Guardian. Over 800 properties will be lost to coastal erosion over the next 20 years, according to the Agency’s figures, and there is no compensation scheme in place which would allow home owners to move to a safer location.

Cornwall has the most homes expected to be lost over the next 20 years with 76 properties at risk. It also has the most homes expected to be lost over the next 50 years with 132 properties at risk. The Guardian says that over the next century six local authorities are expected to lose more than 200 homes each, with properties on the east coast particularly vulnerable:

  • Great Yarmouth – 293 homes expected to be lost over the next 100 years
  • Southampton – 280 homes lost
  • Cornwall – 273 homes lost
  • North Norfolk – 237 homes lost
  • East Riding of Yorkshire – 204 homes lost
  • Scarborough – 203 homes lost

In December 2013, a tidal surge flooded 1,400 homes along the east coast and a number of homes fell into the sea. Quoting statements from the National Trust, The Independent reported that some of Britain’s coastline suffered years of erosion in just a few weeks, or in some cases hours, as a result of the winter storms. The Trust warned of “breathtaking erosion” at a number of its sites and said that the rate could increase if extreme weather becomes more frequent.

The Environment Agency’s analysis assumes that funding for shoreline management plans is maintained, says The Guardian. Without this, the number of properties lost over the next century would increase tenfold from 7,000 to over 74,000. Even with continued coastal defence, the Agency’s analysis warns of a 5% chance that the figure of 7,000 could rise to 9,000 “if the weather is particularly extreme.”

On 23 January 2015, the Government updated its information on the number of homes at risk due to coastal erosion “based on recent findings from the Environment Agency National Coastal Erosion Risk Mapping programme.” It says more than 250 homes are at risk due to coastal erosion in the next 20 years (the previous estimate was 200) and it also says that “around 700 more homes could become at risk in the next 50 years.” However, the figures disclosed to The Guardian puts the number at 295 over the next 20 years and at 430 in the extreme case.

Campaigners have argued for a compensation scheme should homes on the coast be allowed to fall into the sea, but The Guardian quotes a Government response to enquiries from Friends of the Earth: “It is not feasible or affordable to protect every household now or in the long term, especially given the likely consequences of sea level rise.” And the statement continues: “There is no statutory recourse to compensation for property lost or damaged due to coastal change.” However, a spokesperson from Defra said that grants were available to “assist local authorities with the immediate costs associated with the loss of a home to erosion” and the Environment Agency said these grants, up to a maximum of £6,000, were intended to cover demolition and removal costs.

Meanwhile, the Government has reminded readers of its website that “We are spending more than £3.2bn over the course of this parliament on flood management and protection from coastal erosion.”


Photo: Coastal erosion of sea cliffs at Happisburgh, Norfolk UK © Andrew Dunn, 04 November 2006, via Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Building resilience to extreme weather

UN climate change conference discusses Royal Society report

Jan 27th 2015

In a recent report, the Royal Society describes the problem of extreme weather and makes a number of recommendations to improve resilience. The report was published shortly before the United Nations conference on climate change, held in Peru in December.

Extreme weather, says the Royal Society, has a huge human cost that cannot be quantified and the problem is likely to worsen with the impact of climate change: “Climate change will affect the frequency and severity of extreme weather in the future. If emissions of greenhouse gases continue at the current rate, extreme weather is likely to pose an increasing threat to people. Yet even if emission rates are reduced, societies will still need to adapt to climatic changes caused by past emissions. Both mitigation of climate change and adaptation are therefore vital.”

The report makes seven recommendations for building resilience to extreme weather, covering planning and preparing for extreme events, protecting people and their assets, and making decisions based on evidence. Among those recommendations, the report says:

  • Governments will be most effective when they focus on minimising the consequences of infrastructure failure rather than avoiding failure completely – “for example by prioritising the resilience of critical infrastructure and having plans to minimise impacts when non-critical infrastructure fails”
  • Policy frameworks covering climate change and disaster risk reduction should be aligned and consistent; in particular, identical or comparable metrics should be used in such frameworks so that the effectiveness of different resilience-building measures can be compared
  • Future climate agreements should emphasise the importance of the natural environment – “for example by highlighting its role in building resilience rather than just its role in driving risk”
  • Risks posed by extreme weather need to be better accounted for in the wider financial system, in order to inform valuations and investment decisions and to incentivise organisations to reduce their exposure

The report also calls for more research to improve the understanding of risks from current weather and to model accurately future climate change impacts; increased efforts to improve the systematic observation and analysis of trends in extreme weather; collaboration at an international level including collaboration between climate research institutes as well as governments; and more funding for measures that build resilience to extreme weather.

“Protecting people and their assets”

The report says that policy-makers need to take practical measures to protect people and their assets from extreme weather, and that practical measures will be most effective when they address multiple hazards and use a portfolio of defensive options, involving both physical and social techniques. It compares a number of physical approaches to reducing the impact of four weather-related hazards – coastal flooding, river flooding, heatwaves and droughts – and recommends that policy-makers consider defensive options beyond traditional engineering approaches, such as approaches based on ecosystems.

Ecosystem-based and hybrid approaches can provide a cost-effective alternative to engineering approaches, the report states, whilst delivering additional benefits such as biodiversity conservation and protection against other hazards. Policy-makers should consider the value of conserving existing natural ecosystems that are difficult or impossible to restore:

“Our analysis suggests that a portfolio of defensive options to address a range of hazards, involving both physical and social techniques, will be the most effective. It also suggests that those investing in infrastructure to reduce the impact of extreme weather should look beyond traditional engineering options to those based on natural ecosystems or processes. There is evidence that options which incorporate these ecosystem-based approaches are more affordable and deliver wider societal benefits as well as reducing the immediate impact of the hazard. However, more evidence is needed to monitor their effectiveness and inform future decisions.”

The Royal Society together with BirdLife International hosted a discussion on this subject at the United Nations conference on climate change held in Lima in December, titled “Building resilience: ecosystem-based adaptation in policy and practice.” Professor Virgilio Viana of the Royal Society presented findings from the Royal Society’s report, and this was followed by a discussion among policy-makers and practitioners. For a report of the discussion, see BirdLife International.

The Royal Society report Resilience to extreme weather is available as a PDF document from the Royal Society website. For more information, click here.


Flooding from Hurricane Sandy in New York, Creative Commons: Oliver Rich, 2012.

Shropshire’s Planning Officers raise concerns over national planning policy with Government Minister

National planning policy is bringing planning system into disrepute, says Councillor

Shropshire Council “unable to manage further development”

Jan 26th 2015

Councillors and planning officers from Shropshire met with the Government’s Planning and Housing Minister Brandon Lewis last month to raise concerns about the impact of the National Planning Policy Framework in the region. The delegation from Shropshire included councillors and planning officers from Shropshire Council and Telford & Wrekin Council. Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham, also attended the meeting which was held at Westminster on December 17 and lasted for over an hour.

The meeting discussed issues such as a five-year land supply, changes to affordable housing provision on minor developments (sites of fewer than 10 homes), and the recent report into the operation of the National Planning Policy Framework, published by the Communities and Local Government (CLG) Select Committee.

Councillor Mal Price, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet member for planning and housing, said:

“This was a very constructive meeting at which we were able to make the Minister aware of planning and housing issues that affect Shropshire, our councils and our residents – particularly the impact of national planning policy. Councillors and the public are extremely upset at what is now happening in Shropshire and the inability of the Council to manage further development, particularly in the smaller towns and villages – with no guarantee that a ‘sound’ Plan will resolve the situation.”

“Relations are deteriorating”

Mal Price continued: “Relations are deteriorating, planning committees are adversarial, the planning system as a whole is being brought into disrepute, with no sense of balance and proportion, and ‘localism’ is regarded as a sham. All the good work on preparing a community-driven Local Plan is at risk. The public perception is that it is a ‘free for all’ for opportunistic developments unrelated to local context and character. It is not that communities won’t accept development. It is more that they now see the Council’s approach of working with them and shaping the future growth of communities as a waste of time. I’m therefore pleased that we had this opportunity to raise these concerns with Brandon Lewis.”

The recent CLG report found that the NPPF is “failing to prevent undesirable and inappropriate housing development.” It also found that sustainable development is not being delivered with regard to infrastructure, renewable energy and the natural environment, whilst economic considerations were given greater weight when determining planning applications than environmental and social considerations. See our news item “Communities need greater protection against unsustainable development, says CLG Committee” for the details.

Seven representatives from Shropshire attended the meeting on December 17, as well as Shrewsbury & Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski:

  • Michael Barker, Head of Planning at Telford & Wrekin Council
  • Councillor Charles Smith, Cabinet member for housing and development at Telford & Wrekin Council
  • Ian Kilby, Planning Services Manager at Shropshire Council
  • Nick Wood, Communities and Housing Policy Team Leader at Shropshire Council
  • Sue Adams, Managing Director of Shropshire Towns & Rural Housing, which has taken over the management of Shropshire Council’s housing stock
  • Councillor Mal Price, Cabinet member for housing and development at Shropshire Council
  • Councillor Dave Roberts, Shropshire Council

News of the meeting was reported in a press release last month.


Rectory Field, Church Stretton. © Copyright Anthony Bloor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License. Much of South Shropshire lies in an AONB but councillors are concerned that current planning policy is seen as a ‘free for all’ for opportunistic developments.

Flood Risk Management in the Cotswolds

Cotswold Flood Action Group brings together local councils, Thames Water and the Environment Agency

Plans for 2015 are in progress

Jan 23rd 2015

The Cotswold Flood Action Group is planning a number of flood prevention measures for 2015, according to a report in the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard. Set up in February 2014, the Cotswold Flood Action Group coordinates the work of those organisations responsible for managing flood risk in the area and includes representatives from parish and town councils, Thames Water and the Environment Agency.

Thames Water will be making improvements to foul water systems in Cirencester and South Cerney and to line sewers in Naunton. The relining of the sewers will prevent leakage from open joints and cracked pipes and help to reduce the infiltration of groundwater into the system. The Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard says that Thames Water has already replaced one of its pumps at the Naunton pumping station and sealed the village’s sewerage systems at a number of locations to prevent groundwater seeping into pipes and causing their systems to break down.

The Environment Agency has carried out work in South Cerney, removing silt and gravel deposits, whilst Cotswold District Council is planning to install an additional pipe in the area. The pipe will have a ‘non-return’ valve to prevent the return of water up the pipe and to assist drainage during a flood. Work is also underway to install flood defence protection to 20 properties in Moreton-in-the-Marsh. A flow control is being installed in Cotswold District Council’s flood relief ditch and a larger capacity culvert is being laid across the A44.

In the east of the Cotswold district, the County Council and Cotswold District Council are working together with a local landowner and Kempsford Parish Council to carry out a flood alleviation scheme in Whelford, near Fairford.

Speaking to the Wilts and Gloucestershire Standard, Lewis Purbrick, a flood risk management advisor at the Environment Agency, said: “Being part of the Cotswold Flood Action Group is helping us to work more closely with partner organisations and communities. We are working in communities across the Cotswolds throughout the year, understanding what residents expect of us and what other organisations are doing, which is really helping us to prioritise our work.”


Photo: River Windrush, Bourton on the Water, by Ballista at en.wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons, licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Groundwater Flood Risk in Basingstoke

Government promises £2m to reduce the risk of groundwater flooding in Basingstoke

But the funds will not be available until 2018

Jan 22nd 2015

Hampshire County Council is being urged to spend £2 million on a flood prevention scheme in a suburb of Basingstoke. A total of 87 homes were evacuated in the Buckskin area of Basingstoke in February 2014 when the properties were affected by groundwater flooding. County Councillor Stephen Reid explained that the problem was caused by a dormant spring reactivating because of a high water table. The properties were then flooded by the groundwater which flowed through the estate and was also contaminated with raw sewage.

The Government announced that the area would be awarded £2 million for a flood prevention scheme to ensure that such a flooding incident would not happen again. However, the Government has also said that the money will not be available until 2018 and the Basingstoke Gazette reports that the County Council will have to meet a range of requirements for the cash to be released, including carrying out initial feasibility work to assess and refine the options for reducing the risk of groundwater flooding, and making sure that the preferred option is technically feasible.

Councillor Stephen Reid, representing the Basingstoke North-West constituency, is now calling on the decision-makers at Hampshire County Council to spend the money as soon as possible. The Councillor addressed members of the Council’s Cabinet last month and urged them to spend the £2 million promised for the flood alleviation scheme now, and subsequently to request a refund from the Government when the funds are due to be released.

The Environment Agency and Thames Water have been carrying out some work in the Buckskin area, but Stephen Reid said: “The priority now is to try to find an engineering solution that will produce a real benefit for Buckskin, and that won’t be easy. If we can’t stop the water table rising, I would like the engineers to investigate whether a pumping solution might be able to divert some of the groundwater from running along the natural valley in which Buckskin was built back in the 1960s.”

The leader of Hampshire County Council Roy Perry responded to Stephen Reid’s plea by saying that the local authority would proceed with the project before 2018, but only if it could be sure that the Government would refund any money that was spent. Meanwhile, local residents have formed the Buckskin Flood Action Group and several have registered an interest in becoming volunteer flood wardens.


Photograph: Flooding by the Worting Road, Basingtoke, February 2014 © Copyright Scriniary and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. The photo shows flood waters gathered by a golf course, a consequence of groundwater flooding in the Buckskin housing estate.