Giant livestock farms and privatised water firms accused of polluting the nation’s waterways are to be named in what is thought to be the world’s first livestreamed investigative documentary.
The crowdfunded investigation Rivercide, which will be broadcast online at 7pm on Wednesday, will be hosted by environmental journalist and Guardian columnist George Monbiot. Monbiot will travel along the River Wye, which flows between England and Wales, to collect water samples that will be analysed as the documentary unfolds.
“This is a really shocking story of how our rivers are being devastated,” said Monbiot. “We’ll be revealing some serious wrongdoing.”
The broadcast will also link to locations in Yorkshire and the east of England with similar problems.
The documentary comes as concern grows about the scale of human and animal waste washing into rivers and seas. Just 14% of English rivers are classed as being in a healthy condition, with sewage releases accounting for 36% of the damage to waterways, and runoff from agricultural industries responsible for 40%.
Last week Southern Water was fined a record GBP90m for knowingly dumping billions of litres of raw sewage over several years.
Analysis suggests only a tiny proportion of illegal discharges ever leads to a prosecution and the Environment Agency, which monitors river pollution, has lost nearly two-thirds of its budget since 2010.
“A huge part of what we’re looking at is the total failure of government. I don’t just mean the Westminster government – I mean all four nations,” said Monbiot. “There’s been a slashing of monitoring and enforcement to the point of which you can get away with anything.”
The live documentary is being directed by Franny Armstrong, known for her films Age of Stupid and McLibel, on a budget of just GBP70,000.
“It used to be that only mega-corporations could make a live event, with outside broadcast trucks and hundreds of thousands of pounds,” said Armstrong. “But mobile phone streaming technology means that just a few of us can make something which can be watched globally for free. It was too irresistible not to try.”
Armstrong believes the live broadcast brings a sense of risk to environmental film-making, which can sometimes make for grim, serious viewing. “This format has got an added element of jeopardy, which will make it a hell of a lot more fun to watch,” she said. “People are going to be wondering ‘is George about to fall off that boat?’ or ‘is the live stream going to go down?’ It has a Challenge Anneka feel to it.”
Monbiot will be joined by singer Charlotte Church and poet Owen Sheers, who have composed an original song for the broadcast. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah will also perform.
The production team did not approach traditional broadcasters about the live stream. “Even if you somehow got through the commissioning editors, it would just have been killed by officialdom,” said Monbiot. “The big broadcasters have become much more cautious. When I started at the BBC in the 1980s, there was a real excitement about journalism. But the sense that you could do anything bold and dangerous has completely gone.”
Monbiot decided to focus on the River Wye after a disturbing canoeing trip last summer. He found the Wye, which was once prized for its salmon, had changed beyond all recognition over the course of a decade. “There hadn’t been any rain so it should have been crystal clear but you couldn’t see anything,” he said. “I made the mistake of going swimming. As soon as my nostrils got near the water I nearly gagged because it was so disgusting. When I got out, my whole body felt like it was coated in slimy snot. It was like something out of a 1970s science fiction film.”
“Rivers are the life support system on which all life depends but we are literally pouring shit into them,” said Armstrong. “In a civilised society, and the sixth richest country in the world, you’d think keeping water clean would be job number one? But this government can’t even do that.”