When we think of plastic pollution, the iconic images of a seals entangled in discarded fishing gear, or birds with plastic beer pack rings around their necks, or a sea horse with their tail wrapped around a cotton bud spring to mind. We think of oceanic animals.
But what we don’t often consider is that much of the pollution that finds it way to the ocean is introduced to the water via rivers, and it is not limited to plastic either. This has a devastating effect for the wildlife who rely on rivers and for humans who enjoy the recreational value they provide.
The Death of UK Rivers
Things are now so bad for our rivers that last year, every river in the UK failed pollution tests, scoring unsafe e-coli levels among other harmful compounds.
George Monbiot, environmental activist and writer for the Guardian last week premiered his live documentary, Rivercide. During the course of the program, he worked his way along a stretch of the River Wye, talking to locals about the drastic river changes they have observed and engaging with activists who have been monitoring the pollution levels in the water. Footage and reports of murky, stinking water, dominated by algal blooms – deadly to river plants that provide necessary habitat for fish and river animals – make a mockery of the many conservation laws and agencies that are meant to protect the river.
George explores sources of the pollution around the river, the regulatory failure by the government and commercial exploitation unwittingly enabled by consumer demand for animal products which have caused the ecocide of the river.
Raw sewage pollution from irresponsible water companies is a huge issue, causing sewage fungus to colonise plants and introducing unsafe levels of e-coli. But sewage pollution is surprisingly not the most significant driver of river death. The biggest contributor is agricultural runoff from farm animal poop that has introduced nitrates and phosphates which feed algal blooms, enabling them to take over, starving the river of light and oxygen. This results in the suffocation of fish and, and as photosynthesis is prevented, the death of important wildlife habitat such as water crowfoot. The disruption further affects populations of birds and mammals who rely on sustenance from the rivers.
Raw Sewage Pollution
Thousands of illegal cost-cutting raw sewage dumps by water companies are polluting the rivers, sometimes for up to 6 months continuously, spilling billions of tonnes into the water. A mind blowing seven billion litres were recorded as being spilled per day for two days in one particular river. Water companies are only permitted to allow this under extreme circumstances such as during heavy rainfall which has the potential to overwhelm the sewers. Regulators are failing to track and prosecute breaches of regulation, and nasties, including poop, e-coli, fat bergs, sanitary towels, tampons, toilet paper and wet wipes are consequently drifting down our rivers.
Runoff from Farmed Animal Excrement
Along the river Wye, it’s revealed that there are numerous and proliferating number chicken farms, all producing excrement that pollutes the river. Excrement is usually spread, as per regulations, over the land as fertiliser, but where phosphate from the chicken excrement exceeds the quantity required to fertilise the plants, the excess accumulates in the soil and eventually is washed into the river during rainy periods. Nobel Foods, owner of the Happy Egg brand, is the biggest contractor of farms around the section of the river Wye that George investigates in the program. For other rivers, the runoff may be from dairy cattle farms or pig farms, depending on the regional farming specialisation. Though the animal poop could, in theory, be transported to regions where plant farming is dominant to be used as fertiliser, due to the low value of the excrement and the high relative cost of fuel, it’s not commercially viable to do so, and so the runoff problem endures.
Regulatory and Political Failure
Farms with fewer than 40 thousand chickens are not required by regulators when seeking planning permission to obtain environmental permits for their operations, and since regulators fail to limit the number of these farms operating along the river, the result is an overwhelming and deadly cumulative pollution effect. Local authorities have no concept of the scale of the pollution from farms since they have not assessed the marginal cost to the river of each additional factory – every additional 40,000 chickens, or 2000 pigs.
Guidelines for farmers on best practice for disposal of poop – spreading over land – fails to prevent saturation of nutrients in the ground and the consequential runoff into the river. The result for the river is the same as if farmers were to dump the poop directly into it.
The Environment Agency and National Resources Wales – the authorities responsible for monitoring and enforcing laws and regulations around health of the Wye – have also failed in their duties to protect it. It’s notable that they have had their budgets cut by two thirds and a third respectively as a result of Conservative government austerity measures. The job of monitoring river pollution, as with many public services that ought to fall within the states responsibilities and funding, have been increasing falling into the hands of caring citizens, without whom, much of the information in this documentary would not be available.
The screening of Riverside came only a week after media reports that Southern Water, who was fined £90m for their transgressions – has been dumping billions of tonnes of raw sewage for a number years into protected areas of the south coast, and has been manipulating pollution data in order to avoid penalties. These events showcase the criminal neglect and ecocide by corporations who are motivated by profit alone and a neglectful government intent on profiteering from public-private partnerships, privatisation, subsidisation of environmentally devastating industries and failure to act on the environmental crisis.
How to Help
Watch Rivercide and share it far and wide.
Join a friends of the river group and help look after the waterways in your local area.
Write to your MP to tell them what you know about Rivercide and the importance of limiting biodiversity loss in the UK, one of the most wildlife depleted countries in the world.
Boycott animal products.
Engage with your local community on this issue to spread awareness of the problem.
Never flush anything other than pee, poop and toilet paper down the toilet, and switch to environmentally friendly products such as re-usable sanitary pads, menstrual cups, baby wipes and nappies.
Vote for political candidates and parties who advocate for our environment, democracy, and public services expenditure.
Join environmental activism groups in your local area.
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