A stunning live documentary has laid bare the awful condition of British rivers. It’s an embarrassing portrayal for a country that places so much pride in its famous waterways like the Thames, Severn, Clyde and Mersey.
Now people are being urged to apply public pressure to see funding increase so pollution can be monitored, and offenders brought to justice.
There are 1,500 riverways in the UK but just one has a bathing water destination, the Warfe in Ilkley, Yorkshire. That’s compared to 573 in France, 74 in Italy and 38 in Germany.
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Don’t assume the designation means it’s clean, it just means the authorities have to report publicly on the levels of E. Coli. The issue has been thrust into the spotlight by the world’s first ever live documentary, ‘Rivercide’.
It featured citizen scientists, river users and community activists who explained that British rivers are cloudy, full of slime, emit objectionable smells and are bereft of healthy levels of wildlife. One contributor described the situation as like watching a loved one die a long, slow, painful death at the hands of cancer.
‘Rivercide’ director Franny Armstrong spoke to RT and explained why she wanted to showcase the problem and blamed the Conservatives, who’ve been in government since 2010.
She said: “It’s an absolute scandal and I don’t think people are aware, I think people know the Tories have had us all suffering from austerity for the last 10 years, but the effects of that, of all of the budgets of our public services being cut, is only now starting to be seen.
The rivers have been going downhill for the last five to ten years, and it’s getting worse and worse and worse.
A lot of people have been trying to get attention for it, so that’s why we wanted to do our documentary, to bring quick public attention to it.
We are the people who employ the government and our MPs, and at the next election we vote for them. If people think it’s wrong that our rivers are being destroyed by this current government, then they can show them where the exit is, can’t they?”
The dire state of affairs is down to a combination of polluters and poor enforcement of standards. There are two groups who are filling Britain’s rivers with excrement, according to the film. The first is water companies dumping raw sewage. The second is livestock farmers, who are disposing of dung from chickens, pigs or dairy animals at such a rate, the ground is unable to absorb it all. What is left ends up bleeding into rivers causing severe damage.
Armstrong added, “What does it say about us, we’re the sixth richest country in the world and we’re literally putting raw sewage into our rivers?
It’s like we are living in Victorian times before proper sanitation was invented.
One of the sad things actually is however angry people are, we can’t solve this problem. We can go pick up rubbish in our rivers every day of our lives but it won’t solve the problem if the pollution keeps on coming, and the only people who can stop the pollution coming are the government, it’s a government problem that needs the government to act.”
That is where the picture gets a little murky. In England, the Environmental Agency is tasked with fining polluters and maintaining standards. Natural Resources Wales and the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency are their sister agencies.
But they are underfunded and, according to ‘Rivercide’, hopelessly outgunned by the scale of the problem.
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Armstrong said. “We’ve got an eyewitness in the film describing how all these fish are turning to get their heads out of the water and climbing up into the rocks, it’s just the most horrific thing.
She phoned Natural Resources Wales at 6pm and they didn’t manage to get there until the next morning, by which time all the pollution had washed downstream and they weren’t able to get a sample to prove what it was.
It’s like turning up at a robbery 13 hours later and expecting the burglars to still be there, it’s ridiculous.”
Research shown in the film revealed a farm could expect a pollution inspection once every 265 years in England. Further research estimated that there were 20 million chickens in the catchment area for the River Wye, which features heavily in ‘Rivercide’.
Armstrong explained, “Chicken shit on its own is a good fertilizer if you’ve got ten chickens, it can help your plants grow.
The people who are supposed to be stopping these things happen had their budgets slashed so much that they’re incapable of acting.
Almost none of these polluters are being fined, and they are taking millions of pounds out in dividends and given salaries, and they are just putting all this shit in our rivers.”
Natural Resources Wales did take part in ‘Rivercide’, however Sir James Bevan, the Environmental Agency’s chief executive, blanked calls to appear and that sparked Armstrong’s anger.
Armstrong said: “We asked many, many times for him to come on and he wouldn’t, so we put on a cardboard cutout of him instead.
We didn’t think he would come on as he’d already turned down Channel 4 News and the BBC’s Panorama which are much bigger than us, but it does make me think, he is being paid something in the order of £200,000 a year of public money to do a job which is to defend the environment, which rivers are a key point. Why are we paying him all this money if all the rivers are polluted and he won’t explain why?”
In 2020, the Environmental Agency’s expenditure was £1.4 billion, 66% came from the British government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, while the remainder was raised by fees/charges. Armstrong stresses that to double that amount would be a relatively small investment by Boris Johnson.
For example the HS2 high-speed rail line total costs could climb to £107 billion, according to Lord Berkeley’s review.
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Armstrong has a history of promoting environmental issues, but she has never encountered such a partisan response. She said: “You always get people on either side of the debate, some people think X and on the other hand somebody thinks something else. But with rivers, you can’t find anyone who thinks it’s a good idea to dump raw sewage, everybody wants clean rivers so I don’t see why the government won’t step forward because it’s a relatively small amount of money and it’s a win/win, everyone wants clean rivers.”
Along with the rivers looking, smelling and feeling unhealthy, the wider effects of the pollution that’s killing them can be seen playing out across the planet. Over the last few weeks, the world has witnessed some highly unusual weather events.
Armstrong added, “It’s all part of a package, it’s not just our rivers we’re doing this to, they are symbolic of our whole attitude to the environment which is take your profits and dump your waste if you can get away with it. Look at what’s happening in Canada now or in Germany with the floods. We can pretend destroying the environment on which we depend is ok, but you only have to turn on the news to see it’s not ok.
It’s like someone being on life support in hospital and putting position into the feeding tube, it’s madness, we all depend on the natural world and if we destroy it, we destroy ourselves.”
Alongside its shocking content, ‘Rivercide’ was celebrated for being completely live. It was shot on 12 iPhones, with the crew switching between different cellular networks due to coverage being stronger depending on where they were shooting. Presenter George Monbiot was joined by a range of guests, even spending part of the time in a kayak and being driven in a car. Armstrong hit on the idea after talking with her father about how Zoom discussion panels were technologically impressive, but often dull.
She said: “There’s a lot of deeply depressing environmental documentaries now, even I can’t watch them all, so we just thought doing it live would add an excitement for the viewers that would take them outside of the normal documentary experience and make it more entertaining, and from the responses we’ve had that has been very much the case.
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This technology is now here, that a small group of independent filmmakers funded by crowdfunders can make an outside broadcast that previously only someone like BBC or CNN would be able to do, suddenly we can do it on mobile phones.
It’s also so much faster, there isn’t a year long edit process – we’re delighted with how it’s gone.”
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.