Save Britain’s Rivers: Why New Scientist is campaigning to rescue UK waterways
The UK’s rivers are neglected, polluted and over-exploited. In partnership with the i, New Scientist’s new campaign will reveal what’s gone wrong and how to restore them
15 February 2023
RIVERS are the lifeblood of human civilisation. Our conurbations are built on them and have been since the very first cities (probably) were built along the courses of the Tigris and the Euphrates in what was then Mesopotamia. They remain necessary: life depends just as much on water now as it did then.
But in the crowded, urbanised world we live in, they are also increasingly valued for their beauty and restorative power, attracting walkers, kayakers and wild swimmers. It is understood that there are few things more uplifting to the human heart than a beautiful river, whether it is meandering through meadows or tumbling silver down rocks, and that such uplift has a considerable impact on our mental and physical health. The UK is one of a handful of countries in the world to quantify the beneficial impact of being around freshwater: it saves the nation’s health services £870 million a year.
So we need our rivers and we love them too – yet we neglect them. We obstruct them, making it impossible for wildlife such as eels to travel upstream. We turn them into concrete canals, where little can grow. We allow rubbish to mount up on river beaches and catch on every fallen branch, poisoning and sometimes literally strangling the creatures that live in the water. We dump raw sewage into rivers, over and over again. Pesticides and farm waste leach in off the land. Less visibly, old mines seep poison into them.
In some places, so much water is extracted from the rivers themselves, or from the underground water caches they spring from, that they are quite simply disappearing. Recently, we reported on what has happened to “the Nile of America”, the glorious Colorado river, which no longer reaches the sea.
The state of the UK’s rivers
In 2016, the International Union for Conservation of Nature published a report on the state of the UK and the Republic of Ireland’s rivers. It concluded that “truly natural environments that have escaped both direct and indirect human alteration no longer exist”. Things haven’t improved since. No rivers in England, Wales or Northern Ireland are considered to be in high ecological health, and only 14 per cent of England’s rivers qualify as good. When you take chemical pollution into account, no rivers in these three nations are deemed as being good. Not one.
The UK has legislation in place to protect its rivers, yet it appears to make little difference.
Why does this matter more than the similar befouling and despoiling of some patch of land nearby? Why focus on rivers?
Rivers and other wetlands make up a very small fraction of Earth’s surface, but, according to the United Nations, they are home to 40 per cent of all plant and animal species. In the UK, a tenth of biodiversity depends on them. Their significance to our biosphere is tremendous. So how we treat our watercourses has vast implications for our future, far beyond the poisoning of swimmers forced to pass through sewage, or unsightly “wet wipe beaches”.
Save Britain’s Rivers campaign
New Scientist hasn’t committed to a campaign in many decades, but over the course of the next year, we will be fighting to save the UK’s rivers. We are a global magazine, but for a campaign to make sense, it must have achievable targets, so we have decided to start with the UK, a relatively small and rich group of islands where there is no excuse at all for how filthy its rivers are. Yet we will be mindful at every step to make sure the stories we publish – whether they cover the science of why rivers matter or how to find out if your local stream or river is healthy – will be of interest to a global audience.
We are embarking on this campaign, named Save Britain’s Rivers, with our sister publication, the i. Edited by Oliver Duff, it is a newspaper with impressive reach in the UK and a shared passion for environmental causes.
Over the next year, in tandem with the i, we will be doing deep dives into the science of what is happening to UK rivers, as well as a host of hard-hitting news stories, films, podcasts and events on the subject. We will also be celebrating the glory of our rivers, in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and asking readers to tell the story of their local watercourse. More on that later. We will also seek out rivers around the world that are exceptionally well cared for, and investigate why and how.
So what do we hope to achieve over the next year? Three things.
First, we want to find out what is really happening to the UK’s rivers and why.
Second, we want to build on the superb work that so many scientists and activists, such as Feargal Sharkey, have already done in bringing the plight of the UK’s rivers to public notice. We want more people to understand what is going on.
Third, we want to draw up a pragmatic, apolitical manifesto for rivers, a blueprint for how they can be much better looked after. We hope this manifesto could be picked up and adopted by any political party interested in saving our rivers.
The UK can look after its rivers better. Much better. So let’s, together, make it happen.
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