Could UK rivers be given the same rights as people?
For the latest Costing the Earth programme on Radio 4 this week, Tom Heap took to his canoe:
Canoeing the Cam
Britain’s rivers are in crisis, with only 14% of them deemed to be in a good ecological state. Chalk streams are particularly vulnerable, as so much is taken out of them for use in our water supplies. Pollution from sewage and agricultural run-off only add to the problem.
In this programme Tom Heap takes a canoe trip along a waterway he knows well, the River Cam, to see for himself what’s going on. He talks to environmental groups and local people, and asks whether the rapid expansion of homes and businesses in the area can sustainably continue in such a water-stressed region. He concludes that urgent action is needed if rivers like the Cam are not to run dry.
Others were along the Cam on Saturday:
Giant models of poo emojis have been floated along a city centre river to raise awareness about water pollution. Little Blue Dot, a group of climate activists, organised the event in Cambridge, dubbed “Sewage Saturday”, to highlight the amount of untreated human waste being pumped into waterways.
As Tom Heap says, though, throughout the UK rivers are suffering high levels of pollution – as the latest stories in the media show:
The government is keen to promote river restoration:
But perhaps they could go further – as suggested in Frome:
Laws of nature: could UK rivers be given the same rights as people?
As more and more countries grant natural features or ecosystems legal personhood, the UK’s fight to pass nature rights laws is quietly gaining pace
The River Frome murmurs and babbles through the woods and fields of north Somerset. It is popular with anglers and wild swimmers but is often polluted with a cocktail of agricultural runoff, leading to frequent complaints from the public.
In 2018, Frome Town Council tried to pass a bylaw giving part of the river and the adjacent Rodden meadow the status of a person in law. This would establish their right to exist, flourish and thrive, and for the river to flow freely and have a natural water cycle, as well as ensuring timely and effective restoration if they were damaged. The council and a local charity, Friends of the River Frome, were to be made joint guardians of the river and meadow, tasked with balancing their interests with the health and safety of local people.
The bylaw was turned down in 2020, but the fight to give UK rivers rights continues today. On midsummer’s eve, members of Cambridge community group Friends of the Cam held a ceremony to establish the rights of their river based on the Earth Law Center’s Universal Declaration of River Rights. Sharing songs and stories about people’s individual connections with the river, they declared that the Cam had the right to flow, to be free from over-abstration and pollution and to host native biodiversity – and appointed themselves as its guardians.
“I think it’s great to keep this idea alive,” says Frome councillor Richard Ackroyd. “It’s possible, it’s not an airy fairy idea with no chance. It could be a reality and wouldn’t that change things?”