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 Llynfi, 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 Honddu, 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 smelled the water. The free-range farms are the worst: the birds carpet the fields with their highly reactive dung, which is then washed into the catchment by rain. Several times a year, algal blooms now turn the clear river cloudy. The fish gasp for breath. Aquatic insects suffocate.
Similar disasters are happening across Britain. In the east of the country, the main issues are human sewage and water extraction. The privatised water companies, granted local monopolies on supply, extract vast dividends and salaries while not investing enough 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 ecosystems could disappear altogether.
Critics argue that 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 the companies dump untreated sewage into many of our rivers and chalk streams for thousands of hours a 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 adviser told the 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 on to 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 have failed 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 caught?
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 farms behind 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 useless.
In 2016, the 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, test less. 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.
o George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist