Lewes once more has made history! A motion, proposed by the Green Party promoting a Rights of River Declaration within the next two years, was passed by the district council, the first ever to do so. This declaration refers directly to the Ouse, along whose banks the town has developed, but is backed by the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust, Sussex Wildlife, and the Environmental Law Foundation.
Rights of Rivers movement
The Rights of Rivers is a growing movement and last September, Love our Ouse Festival, hosted by Lewes, included seminars on river rights and saw attendees drafting a Charter for the Ouse. This festival, which joyfully celebrated our river with its convoluted network of tributaries and streams, was in effect a love letter for the river and a challenge to those who abuse its gifts. A perfect catalyst for all the political factions on the district council to unite in defending its rights. Green Party councillor Matthew Bird, who is also the lead member for sustainability, said:
“Our waterways face constant harm from pollution, road runoff, development and climate change, and the health and wellbeing of our local river is severely threatened. Water companies don’t act and the Environment Agency seems toothless. This motion is about valuing the river in its own right and rethinking our relationship with nature.”
Pollution threats to all rivers
Not just our own River Ouse but all rivers, waterways and coastal waters are threatened by pollution. Not one of our country’s rivers meets legal water quality standards and all are affected by pollution. Sewage outflow, often untreated if rainfall is heavy, excessive abstraction by water companies and agricultural run-off, all harm our rivers. Chalk streams are drying up and water levels in our big rivers are falling consistently. From where it originally bubbled to the surface, the source of the Thames finds itself significantly further downstream.
If we continue to expect rivers to provide us with water for drinking, for washing, for sanitation and industry, but seek to lift our spirits as we walk along their banks or swim in their unpolluted depths, we need to realise that if these are the responsibilities of a river, then it also has rights. Rivers should expect water levels that do not drop unless there is a drought, to support a diversity of wildlife from the humblest water boatman to our birds and ducks, fish and frogs, for their waters not to be polluted by chemicals, plastic or sewage, and not to be choked by the resultant blanket weed or algae, but to sustain the wildflowers and plants that used to flourish in or beside them.
Protecting our water
For rivers to gain rights, our entitled humanity must learn to curtail its own perceived rights and accept some uncomfortable responsibilities. In this country, we are being let down by our privatised water utilities who are not spending enough on renewing ancient infrastructure yet awarding massive salaries to top executives.
The Environment Agency is underfunded, it is true, and cannot keep up with all the incidents of river pollution. But it is also true that we are all using too much water. We must question our daily shower or bath, every flush of our loos and every time we hose mains water onto our garden when we should be using collected rainwater or syphoning from our baths. We also need to dispose of our rubbish responsibly: to cut down our dependence on one-use plastic and aim never to put wet wipes, sanitary towels or worse down our toilets.
What is more difficult to state during a cost-of-living crisis is our need to cut an addiction to cheap food. Intensive chicken farming in Wales, for instance, is threatening to damage the ecosystem of the River Wye permanently, as runoff from these farms has encouraged algae which turned the river into a bright green pea soup.
Rivers are a global lifeblood
Our ancestors imbued rivers with a spiritual attribute, perceiving them as a mysterious link between the unknown and the physical world. Deities and nymphs, sometimes playful, more often terrifying, were believed to gambol in their waters, which resulted in gifts being taken to their source. Today in India, the Ganges is venerated as the Mother Goddess Ganga herself. The Euphrates and the Nile, according to Muhammed, are rivers that emerge from heaven. On a more prosaic level, these rivers and many others face existential threats of pollution, decline in water levels and flow. It is time for a global accord primarily to identify and then to uphold the rights of rivers, literally our planet’s life blood.
Rivers from earliest history have played an essential part in our long development from hunter gatherers, via settled farmers to the urban civilisation of today, which poses the greatest threat to their very existence. It is necessary to recalibrate and recapture that sense of awe held by our ancestors towards the river upon which they depended for food, for fresh water and for irrigation.
Treat our humble Ouse with the respect it deserves as a living entity and be grateful for all that it has given to Lewes and ensure that in future the relationship between town and river will be one of equals.