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Sustainability – Planning for resilience and climate change

Explore the benefits highlighted in our Waterways for Today report

Waterway projects can help us to plan for resilience and climate change.

Our waterways face unprecedented challenges from climate change; but they can be part of the solution through adaptation, mitigation and enhancing the natural environment.

How Waterways Can Help

Our inland waterways face unprecedented challenges from damage caused by weather extremes; but they can also be part of the solution by mitigating as well as adapting to the impacts of climate change. Waterways have the potential to address many impacts of climate change, through mitigating flooding and droughts, transferring drinking water supplies and generating hydropower. They can also provide active travel and low-carbon transport routes and more freight on commercial waterways will reduce lorry movements on the roads.

Waterways will also need to adapt to meet zero emissions targets – sustainable fuels, electric charging points and other associated infrastructure is required. Innovative solutions such as using canal water to reduce urban temperatures as well as heating and cooling buildings are being implemented.

Moving goods by water is intrinsically more energy efficient than road or rail but more incentives are required in the form of grants, capital funding or subsidies to achieve the economic, social and environmental benefits. The existing Modal Shift Revenue Support grant should give more weight to the environmental benefits of waterborne transport. Existing wharves need greater protection through the planning system.

Water is a precious commodity and the increasing need to transfer it to areas of drought is better handled through open waterways than more costly pipeline schemes. Other benefits include preserving heritage, positive impacts on the water environment, biodiversity and ecology, social and amenity value through recreational use, and the potential for reduced carbon impact through re-purposing existing infrastructure, low carbon heating and cooling opportunities.

The Department for Transport’s Clean Maritime Plan outlines specific measures to tackle air pollutant emissions from the UK’s maritime and inland waterways sectors, with a long-term transition to low and eventually zero emissions. Investment in infrastructure and the availability of affordable biofuels is needed for this to happen.


Rivers and canals are the perfect metaphor for imagining connection and responsibility – sustainability thinking. Derby is blessed that rivers and canals are part of its heartbeat; the city and the countryside will be reimagined through the lens of nature as a new generation reimagines its future with everything to play for.

– Sir Tim Smit, Eden Project Founder
and supporter of Down to Earth Derby

Case Study: Glasgow’s Smart Canal’ – repurposing canals as ready-made solutions

An award-winning drainage system in Glasgow combines modern technology with an 18th century canal to unlock regeneration across Scotland’s central belt.

The North Glasgow Integrated Water Management System uses pioneering sustainable drainage principles to provide flood risk reduction, water quality management and habitat improvement for local communities. Believed to be the first ‘smart canal’ in Europe, it unlocks 110 hectares of land for investment, regeneration and development. It also paves the way for more than 3,000 new homes to be built, while avoiding over 30,000 tonnes of operational CO2.
With north Glasgow’s sewer systems reaching capacity, new solutions for surface water management were needed. Engineering firm AECOM developed the £17m ‘smart canal’ concept on behalf of Scottish Canals, Glasgow City Council and Scottish Water within the Metropolitan Glasgow Strategic Drainage Partnership to tackle this challenge. Funding for the scheme was provided by the Glasgow City Region City Deal and two ERDF programmes (Green Infrastructure Fund & Scotland’s 8th City – the Smart City).

Meteorological forecasting data and sensors give advanced warning of heavy rainfall and automatically trigger a lowering of the water in the Forth & Clyde Canal. By enabling real-time operational management, the canal will become an intelligent water management system, proactively providing surface water storage when required.


The Smart Canal is helping to manage flood risk, allowing areas of the city to be regenerated whilst also providing safe active travel routes for people to walk, wheel and cycle. I hope other countries with similar historic assets can learn from the impressive approach taken here in Glasgow to mitigate against the damaging impacts of climate change.

Scotland’s Minister for Zero Carbon Buildings and Active Travel, Patrick Harvie MSP, COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021


Facts & Stats

One 500-tonne capacity barge can replace 25 lorries each carrying 20 tonnes. A barge uses 1.3 litres of diesel per tonne-km compared to 1.7 for a train and 4.1 for a lorry. CO2 emissions by transport mode are equally impressive, with a ratio of 1:1.4:4.9 for barge, train and lorry respectively.

41.8 million tonnes of freight were moved on UK inland waterways in 2020, representing 1.3 billion-tonne-kilometres. There is capacity for this to be much greater with more investment and dredging.

A recent study looking at modal shift of light freight from road to river in London identified capacity for up to 20 million parcels to be carried on the river each year, creating 833 jobs, increasing GVA by £53.7m and providing £7m of environmental benefits.

Heat transfer technology can enable canal water to heat homes in winter and cool cities in summer, without any adverse impact on biodiversity. Up to 350,000 homes could benefit on Canal & River Trust waterways alone, saving more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 each year.

There are already a number of hydropower schemes on the inland waterways network contributing to renewable energy targets, with the potential for many more. On Canal & River Trust waterways, 20 million kWh is generated, equating to power for around 6,200 homes and saving 9,500 tonnes of CO2.

Research by the University of Manchester for the Canal & River Trust shows the presence of canal water in urban areas can cool Britain’s overheating cities by up to 1.6o C during a heatwave, along a 100m-wide corridor.

A scheme proposed for the Grand Union Canal could see it transfer treated waste water from Warwickshire to the South East where drinking water is needed. The proposal could be hugely beneficial for ecology, recreation and flood defence, and be cheaper in engineering costs than a pipeline.

On the 2,700 miles of connected rivers and canals, 300 new electric charging sites along with taxation and rebates to make alternative fuels affordable will go a long way towards meeting targets outlined in the Department for Transport’s Clean Maritime Plan.