Opinion

Sewage has made Britain a laughing stock. We need to pull our fingers out and rescue our rivers

Behind the pollution facing our rivers, a failing government is to blame. 2024 must see change, writes River Action's chief exec James Wallace

sewage

James Wallace (right) during an Extinction Rebellion protest in April. Image: Greg Barradale/Big Issue

Despite everyone’s efforts our waterways face calamity. Sewage was discharged for 1.7 million hours last year.

Every single UK river is chemically polluted; whereas France has 573 bathing water sites, our paltry three are all rated poor and unfit to swim. Unsurprising when our government has cut regulatory funding by 70%. Meanwhile, to host open water swimming during the Olympics next summer, France has invested €1.4bn to clean the River Seine.

We are the laughing stock of Europe, bathing in stinking political effluent with factory farmed eggs all over our faces. Our rivers have become a national disgrace, besieged on all sides by greed, ineptitude and illegality.

It’s been a massive year for River Action, fighting to rescue Britain’s rivers.

We held the polluters accountable, raised the alarm about the desperate plight of our rivers, many of them threatened by a cocktail of agricultural and sewage pollution, and collaborated with communities, charities and influencers like Feargal Sharkey and Chris Packham – all this and more with a ten-person team of river activists.

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A personal highlight was speaking after England cricketer Ebony Rainford-Brent to 2,500 members of the Women’s Institute AGM. It was to propose a national campaign for bathing waters, which is now being rolled out across Britain. This was a perfect warm-up for losing my political party conference cherry. Imagine the joy of telling thousands of Liberal Democrat delegates in Bournemouth how we need polluters and the government to pull their fingers out of their asses and fix their leaky assets!

By saying ‘no’ to funding from industry (polluters) or government (regulators), we are free to pursue targeted interventions vociferously – with a smile, but ready to reveal sharpened legal teeth.

The challenge is to engage with polluters and politicians constructively, simultaneously facilitating and pressuring for systemic change. For example, restructuring and refinancing the water industry and reforming Ofwat and the Environment Agency.

We balance activism, diplomacy, advocacy and litigation, wielding carrots and sticks. It begins with helping people understand the causes and scale of the problems affecting their river; and taking their concerns to the perpetrators to effect urgent change.

The failed regulatory and industrial system works against many of those people that could be part of the solution. How can it be right that farmers earn only 1p in every £1 of food profit with the rest going to intermediaries and supermarkets? Talented Environment Agency ecologists are often demoralised by debilitating funding cuts. We must turn perceived villains into heroes.

We have campaigned hard on the River Wye. It faces ecocide because of 3,000 tonnes of phosphates in the manure from the nearby 24 million chickens housed in Intensive Poultry Units.

River Action started by supporting local community groups with fundraising for citizen science to gather evidence of agricultural pollution. We mapped and engaged directly with the polluting supply chain, including pressuring global corporations Avara and Tesco.

In February we are in the High Court collaring the Environment Agency for failure to enforce environmental laws that could have protected the Wye from farming pollution. It’s an expensive legal slog but we are determined to kick the butts of the polluters.

Neither are we cowed by the multi-billion-pound water companies permitting human waste to enter our rivers.

By tapping into community expertise such as the river detectives at Windrush Against Sewage Pollution, and with the support of Sir Steve Redgrave, we focused the public’s attention on the sewage crisis perpetuated by the notorious polluter, Thames Water.

We are doubling down on this in 2024.

Following our complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority about the farce that is Red Tractor food certification, we will target the dairy industry, expose the toxic combination of low income to farmers, exploitative agri-chemicals industries and supermarkets creaming profits as rivers have become manure-choked ditches.

Behind the pollution facing our rivers, a failing government is to blame.

It is why we will ensure every electoral candidate and party for local elections, mayoral elections and the general election puts our Charter for Rivers at the top of their manifesto priorities.

Whoever wins must ensure the regulators are properly funded and reformed. Likewise, the failing water companies terrorising our rivers must be put in special measures; and their byzantine structures simplified and refinanced without burdening customers.

As I write, the country is inundated with heavy rainfall and floods.

It is hard to imagine that another drought lurks around the corner. However, our country is completely unprepared for water shortages. The wild west of the water industry has not only profiteered from pollution but allows 3 billion litres of drinking water to leak daily, putting our whole economy at risk.

When London runs out of water – which it will – it could cost £330m per day. Next year River Action adds water quantity to our water quality mission, championing a major campaign to raise awareness of the real and present threat of water scarcity.

We need to engage widely, reaching urban and country dwellers, going beyond stark warnings with hope and humour. Our ‘This is Sh*t’ animation starring Stephen Fry will bring fits of giggles. The new sewage horror short, ‘Black Samphire’ will shiver the spine.

Join us and we will show the government and industry how to transform the poonami into a wave of clear water.

James Wallace is CEO of campaign group River Action.

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