Across the UK, our rivers are being
turned into filthy, dead gutters, at astonishing, heartbreaking speed.
By George Monbiot, published in the
Guardian 12th August 2020
You can judge the state of a nation by the state of its
rivers. Pollution is the physical expression of corruption. So what should we
conclude about a country whose rivers are systematically exploited, dumped on
and bled dry?
I’m writing from the Welsh borders, where I’m supposed to be
on holiday. It’s among the most beautiful regions of Britain, but the rivers
here are dying before my eyes. When I last saw it, four years ago, the Monnow,
a lovely tributary of the River Wye, had a mostly clean, stony bed. Now the
bottom is smothered in slime and filamentous algae. In the back eddies, the
rotting weed floats to the surface, carrying the stench of cow slurry.
A few days ago, part of another tributary of the Wye, the
Llyfni, was wiped out by
a pollution surge, for the third time in five years. Hundreds of trout,
grayling and bullheads floated to the surface, while rare white-clawed crayfish
crawled out of the water. In the Ewyas valley, I discovered, out of sight of
any vantage point, that part of the Honddhu, another beautiful little river, is
being illegally quarried for loose stone. Ancient alders and ashes on its banks
have been ripped out to make way for the digger.
The Wye itself is dying at astonishing, heartbreaking speed.
When I canoed it 10 years ago, the stones were clean. Now they are so slimy
that you can scarcely stand up. In hot weather, the entire river stinks of
chicken shit, from the 10 million birds being reared in the catchment. We made
the mistake of swimming in it: I almost gagged when I smelt the water. The free
range farms are the worst: the birds carpet the fields with their highly
reactive dung, that’s washed into the catchment by rain. Several times a year,
algal blooms now turn the clear river cloudy. The fish gasp for breath. Aquatic
Similar disasters are happening across Britain. In the east
of the country, the main issues are human sewage and abstraction. The
privatised water companies, granted local monopolies on supply, extract
vast dividends and salaries while investing as little as possible in pipes,
sewage systems, reservoirs and pollution control. Instead of stopping leaks or
discouraging overconsumption, they draw down the groundwater that feeds our
rivers. Many now run dry for part of the year. There are only 225 chalk streams
in the world, and 85% are in England. Yet several of these rare and precious
The water companies blatantly
abuse the “exceptional circumstances” rule, which allows them to
discharge raw sewage into our rivers during extreme storms and floods. Official
records show that Anglian Water, for example, dumped
untreated sewage into the River Stour for 8760 hours in 2019: in other
words, every hour of the year.
In the west of Britain, the main issue is livestock farming.
As dairy and poultry units have consolidated, the manure they produce is
greater than the land’s capacity to absorb it. As an agricultural contractor explained
to the Welsh government, some farmers are deliberately spreading muck
before high rainfall, so that it washes off their fields and into the rivers. A
farm advisor told same inquiry that only 1% of farm slurry stores in Wales meet
the regulations. When the stores inevitably leak, rivers become sewers. The
collapse of sea trout populations in Wales maps almost
precisely onto the distribution of dairy farms.
A reader in Cumbria writes to tell me that the neighbouring
farmer drives his slurry tank down to the river at night to pump slurry
straight into the water. A rare investigation by the Environment Agency found
that 95% of farmers in the catchment of the River Axe in south-west England
to invest in proper slurry containment. As a result, 49% of these farms are
polluting the river. The reason the agency’s internal report gave for this
systemic crisis is that the government has been using a “voluntary approach”.
Farms in the south west have their slurry stores inspected, on average, once
every 200 years. Why upgrade your store if there’s little chance of getting
What we are seeing across Britain is complete regulatory
collapse. Even after the extreme and sudden pollution of the Llynfi, the
“emergency” team at Natural Resources Wales failed to arrive for 13 hours, and
refused to accept a water sample taken by a local person at the peak of the
incident. In the Wye catchment, Powys County Council is licensing new chicken
closed doors. In England, the Environment Agency turns a blind eye: of
76,000 pollution and fly tipping cases reported last year, just one resulted
in a fixed penalty notice. Yes, one. As the ENDS Report documents, the
agency’s own officers see its monitoring methods as completely
In 2016, the Westminster government revealed that only 14%
of England’s rivers are in good ecological condition. But instead of taking
action, the government has followed Donald Trump’s coronavirus policy: if you
want the issue to go away, stop testing. After 2016, it ceased annual
monitoring and reporting. It told us to expect the next report in 2019. Then it
said spring 2020. Now it says autumn
2020. Perhaps it means never.
The economic power of the water companies and the cultural
power of the farmers both translate into political power. Special interests
rule. The public and the living world come last. Peer into your local river,
and you’ll see the political filth flow past.