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The natural world's need for water

Updated Wednesday, 10th November 2010

Emma Rothero, a research fellow with the OU's Department of Life Sciences, writes about how our needs and uses of water are intricately bound to those of the natural world

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Humans are not the only species who have specific water needs at specific times. Many rare and interesting plants have very exacting requirements for water at very particular times of year. Too little, and they will succumb to drought; too much and they will drown. Our needs and uses of water are intricately bound to those of the natural world; the water we abstract for washing, drinking, cleaning, or bottling, or more indirectly through the products we consume that require water in production (growing cotton for clothes for example, or the irrigation of potatoes for crisps) may otherwise have been used by wildlife. In order to avoid causing damage through our own water uses, we need to understand fully the relationships in our environment relating to water supply and management.

With this in mind, scientists within the Open University working as the Floodplain Meadows Partnership have been painstakingly researching the impacts of changes in soil water levels on very rare and wildlife-rich floodplain meadows. Floodplain meadows are one of the UK’s most biodiverse habitats, and can contain up to 40 different species of plant in just one square metre. Once commonplace, they are now found on less than 1,500 ha in the UK (an area smaller than London’s smallest Borough of Kensington and Chelsea). To see the current known distribution of floodplain meadows in the UK. Visit the Floodplain Meadows Partnership website to find out more.

Snake’s head fritillary Creative commons image Icon Image by Dandelion And Burdock via Flicker under Creative Commons licence. under Creative-Commons license

A snake's head fritillary

They are also home to some of our rarer and more eye catching species, such as the snake’s head fritillary (pictured above). All the plants found on floodplain meadows require water in the soil for their survival; if the water source dries up, then some species will die from drought stress. Conversely, if the soil is too wet for too long then some species will drown because they are not well adapted to cope with being swamped. The difference in soil-water levels for such changes to occur can be as little as ten cm, therefore plant species can act as very sensitive indicators of water status in the wider river catchment.

Read the landscape

Sustainable water abstraction policies, developed and implemented by the Environment Agency (Catchment Abstraction Management Plans) exist in the UK in order to try to balance the different pressures on a limited and precious resource.  However, such regulation can only deliver so much; a major contributor to reducing the impacts of water abstraction on wildlife lies with us, in our everyday choices about the amount of water we consume, the foods that we buy and the clothes that we wear. Almost all products have a water cost, not just in the UK, but across the world. By making wise choices about our own water use and purchases, we as individuals can help protect these important sites too.

Such research as undertaken by the Floodplain Meadows Partnership can feed into sustainable abstraction policies and is crucial to help ensure the survival of these fabulous wildlife sites into the future. But just as importantly, by understanding the detailed water requirements that individual plant species have, we can read the landscape that we can see, to understand what might be changing in invisible groundwater patterns under our very feet! 

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