Water quality and water management are key environmental policy areas across the UK. Water quality is affected by many sources of water pollution, such as discharges to water, including toxic or organic pollutants and sewage, the diffuse entry of pesticides and fertilisers from agriculture, accidental spills of hazardous materials or leaching from waste sites. Flooding is a critical environmental issue across the UK with significant flood events increasing in recent years.

Water law is wide-ranging and deals with water pollution as well as water resource management, including the regulation of flood risk, water abstraction and land drainage. There are many other areas of law that intersect with water law, such as environmental permitting and agricultural law.

Water policy is a devolved matter and regulated differently across the UK. The EU Water Framework Directive (WFD) has been retained across the UK post-Brexit. The WFD covers surface water, groundwater, estuaries and coastal waters. The Directive sets targets that require the achievement of ‘good surface water status’, including good chemical status and good ecological status, ‘good ecological potential’ in relation to artificial or heavily modified waters, and ‘good groundwater status.’ River basin management is the key mechanism for delivery and river basin management plans (RBMPs) run on six-yearly cycles, the current cycle ending in 2027.

You can click on the headings below for an overview of water policy across UK, and where to go for further information.


Law and policy


International law on water quality is well-developed and governs freshwater resources (including rivers, lakes and transboundary groundwater acquifers), wetland conservation, marine conservation and marine pollution. Water policy is devolved and differs across the UK.


‘Clean water’ is a key aim of the UK Government’s 25-year environment strategy for England. Water is a ‘priority area’ under the Environment Act 2021 and the Secretary of State is due to set long-term targets of no less than 15 years for water standards. Water supply and sewerage is privatised in England with water companies responsible for water supply and sewerage services.

Draft river basin management plans have been produced under the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England and Wales) Regulations 2017. There are 10 river basin districts (RBDs) in England. The Environment Agency manages the seven RBDs wholly within England and jointly manages two of the three RBDs in Wales with Natural Resources Wales, and the Solway Tweed RBD jointly with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. RBDs are sub-divided into management catchments, and further into operational catchments and water bodies. Information about each river basin includes maps, data on classifications, challenges, objectives, protected areas and programmes of measures.

A key mechanism for water management in England is the Catchment Based Approach (CaBA), introduced by Defra in 2013. These community-led partnerships have been established in each of the management catchments across England. Catchment partnerships are often lead by conservation organisations and are supported by a national network of Environment Agency catchment coordinators and an independent CaBA National Support Group.


Northern Ireland

The Department of Infrastructure and Northern Ireland Water have introduced long-term plans relating to the water environment: Sustainable Water 2015-2040, Living with Water Programme (Water Resource Plan 2010-2035) and Northern Ireland Water’s Strategy 2021-2046. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, with the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, have responsibility for water quality in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Water is a public body with responsibility for water supply and sewerage.



Scotland’s water policy is found in Scotland’s wider Environment Strategy to 2045. The River Basin Management Plan for Scotland 2021-2027 was published after consultation in 2021; that for the joint river basin district with England, Solway-Tweed, was updated in 2021. Water supply and sewerage services are provided by Scottish Water, a public sector body.



A Water Strategy for Wales was published in 2015. River basin management plans to 2027 for Wales’ three river basin districts detail the approach. River basin management planning operates under the Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) (England & Wales) Regulations 2017 and within Wales’ wider legislative framework for water policy and for the environment under the Well-being of Future Generations Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. NRW has undertaken an engagement process to identify 10 ‘opportunity catchments’ in order to ‘deliver sustainable management for both water and well-being outcomes.’ Welsh Water is a not-for-profit company with responsibility for water supply and sewerage in Wales.

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