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How much is a clean river worth?

Updated: Oct 12, 2020

Some might consider this question absurd. To them, a healthy natural environment is invaluable. In fact, they would so highly value a clean river as to refuse to put a price on it. Others, however, need to estimate a monetary value in order to decide about investing in combating pollution.

As part of CAMELLIA’s work on community engagement to improve water management, we interviewed Londoners across four boroughs about the diverse ways in which their local rivers and streams matter to them. During open-ended, in-depth conversations, Londoners express different ways in which they appreciate rivers and streams.

Many of the those we interviewed responded with stories about how much their local watercourses matter to their personal well-being and identity. Not only did they talk about rivers and canals as amenities for outdoor sitting, walking, and exercise. They also appreciated urban water for providing opportunities for encountering wildlife and contemplating their civic responsibility to steward the natural environment. Some spoke of their local stream as important to their own biography and the social cohesion of their neighbourhood. Others were deeply concerned about the industrial modification and pollution of London’s rivers and wished to restore them to a condition more closely resembling what they considered to be their natural state.

None of those interviewed made any mention of money when talking about the way they appreciate London’s rivers.

Overflow pipe in a stream in Enfield, London.

Yet the monetary value which Londoners derive from the natural environment forms an important criterion for deciding whether to invest public or commercial funds into improving the environmental quality of London’s rivers. By considering a river as ‘natural capital’, economists calculate the economic benefit which the natural environment generates by, for instance, improving public health or increasing the value of surrounding property.

Some economists hope to build a business case for conservation insofar as the economic benefit of a healthy river can be shown to exceed the cost of preventing pollution. It is relatively easy to calculate the economic benefit derived from mitigating the risk of flood damage to property by the construction of sustainable drainage. Calculating the economic benefit derived from preventing pollution and increasing the diversity of plant and animal life in a river, however, presents much greater difficulty.

In reality, values sometimes clash: the way in which members of the public value their local rivers and the way in which economic valuation studies calculate the public benefit of environmental improvement can be at odds. While many of the Londoners we interviewed cared about the restoration of biodiversity in their local rivers much more vocally than they did about flooding, the economic analysis of the costs and benefits of improving the urban water system can produce the opposite ranking. An emphasis on more readily measurable economic benefits, such as flood reduction, risk crowding out other values which already compel Londoners to care for their rivers and which emphasise nature’s intrinsic worth and our responsibility to steward ecosystems regardless of their benefit to people.

These different ways of valuing London’s rivers do not neatly line up. It is, therefore, all the more important that we continue to collaborate with London’s communities, as well as water companies, regulators and policy makers, in order to include a greater diversity of values in community water management for a liveable London. Undertaking the research to understand and developing the tools to achieve this is one of the key objectives of CAMELLIA’s community engagement programme.


Written by Helge Peters

Research Associate




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