14th July 2021
On Wednesday 14th July at 7pm, the Rivercide documentary became what’s believed to be the world’s first livestreamed investigative documentary.
Presented and written by George Monbiot, the event was based on the River Wye and involved some very well timed canoeing, drone footage and convertibles. This enabled Monbiot to meet a range of individuals talking about their experiences with pollution on the Wye, as well as pollution on other rivers across the country. The documentary provided a depressing snapshot of the health of our rivers and is a wake-up call for national action.
The River Wye was selected by Monbiot after he went canoeing last year and noticed the atrocious state the river was in. He said it had always been a beautiful place, but last year the river had gone brown and smelt terrible. This is largely due to algae that has taken over – the question is what has caused these algal blooms?
Angela Jones is known as the wild woman of the Wye. She is one of the first people to be interviewed in the documentary and swims into camera shot. She echoes a similar sentiment to Monbiot and says she doesn’t recognise the river anymore. Where once the water was clear and she could see the fish and eels, now the water is so polluted she can barely see anything. There are stretches of the river she will no longer swim in due to the pollution which is not only visible, but something she can taste and smell.
Over in Monmouth, Morgan Jones is testing for phosphates. He records a reading of 0.53mg/l during the documentary. This is around 3.5 times higher than the standards set down in the Water Framework Directive. Meanwhile, he tells us that E.coli levels are four times higher than water that can be classed as healthy bathing water.
Ash Smith and Peter Hammond join from the Windrush Valley. They noticed similar issues on the River Windrush and discovered sewage was the biggest threat to their river. It seems that regulators aren’t interested in river pollution and citizen scientists are having to fill the gaps left by official bodies.
According to the Guardian, only 14% of English rivers meet the classification of being in a healthy condition. Rivers are being polluted by sewage and agricultural industries, accounting for 36% and 40% of damage to rivers respectively.
We are told that there are large intensive chicken units in the Wye Valley. Drone footage takes us to one chicken unit and we’re informed there are around 180,000 birds which are grown there for meat. We hear that there are around 20 million chickens in the catchment. So why does this matter? The manure from these birds is spread on the land, where some of it runs off into the river. The remainder leads to a stock of phosphate building up in the soil and this is gradually released into the river.
The concentration of chicken units overwhelms the capacity of the land to cope, says Monbiot. Two thirds of phosphates come from agriculture according to the Environment Agency’s own report. Yet, farms can expect an inspection from the Environment Agency only once every 263 years. There is a fundamental disconnect between those causing the pollution and the inspection bodies who are not holding them accountable.
Unlike her English counterparts, Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales and Trefyndd, agrees to an interview for the documentary. Lesley says that the levels of river pollution in Wales are “Absolutely unacceptable” and “Embarrassing for all of us”.
The poet Benjamin Zephaniah is in Spalding and used to visit the Wye when he was younger. He says it’s quite depressing to see the Wye in this state, before regaling us with a pertinent river poem. Meanwhile, George is travelling across to see Emma Tilling. One day she noticed foam on the river and fish coming to the surface, gasping for oxygen. Emma reported this to Natural Resources Wales and they said they’d send someone to investigate. But they turned up thirteen hours later, and whatever had poisoned the river had been flushed away. Without proper investigation and enforcement, it seems incidents like these will only continue.
Next up we hear from lead singer of the Undertones, and one of the most prominent river campaigners in the UK – Feargal Sharkey. Sharkey tells us that there isn’t a single river anywhere in England that meets good overall health.
As we come to the end of the documentary, Monbiot reminds us that, “Rivers are like the veins of the country… They are connectors.” We hear from the Eden Project who are emailing their six million subscribers to form friends groups to protect rivers. A new campaign called River Action is putting pressure on the government to uphold the law. We can get involved by signing their petition and joining their campaign.
In his opinion piece for the Guardian ahead of the event, Monbiot said, “We love our rivers. We want to swim and paddle and feed the ducks and fish and boat without needing to worry about what’s in the water. We do not consent to their use as cheap disposal chutes by ruthless corporations, exploiting the governments’ regulatory failures.” This is why we must take urgent action to protect and rehabilitate our waterways.
After being played out by Charlotte Church, we are presented with the Rivercide Emergency Rescue Plan, which includes fives things the government must do:
- Fine the polluters
- Fund the enforcers
- Monitor the mess
- Buffer the banks
- Let us test
This fantastic documentary was made possible following a successful crowd-funding campaign to cover costs and enable editorial independence. The task of directing this live event fell in the very capable hands of Franny Armstrong who pulled off a remarkable result. Congratulations to all involved in developing a new groundbreaking documentary format!
My debut children’s picture book, Hedgey-A and the Honey Bees, follows the story of a hedgehog who tries to save the bees from pesticide pollution. If you live in the UK, you can purchase a copy from an independent bookstore online here. If you live outside the UK, copies are available from global Amazon stores.