The gorgeous rivers of England are sick, and I am sick too. Of the politics, of the discharges into the rivers. Of the effluent, both real and that spoken by the politicians currently in charge of this usually green and pleasant land. A land also full of streams and rivers, veins and arteries of blue space, often blue but also often coloured by raw sewage. I have nothing against the colour brown, but it sits too close to a bodily function for me, to like it too much. Sitting to a bodily function this morning after swimming also made me think about the poor River Thames, brown with silt I like to think, but sometimes with something more.
The personal is political, and that goes for swimming waters every bit as much as human rights. Feminist writer Carol Hanisch argued that personal experiences (especially those of women) are outcomes of where you are situated in a system of power relationships. My post-swim morning poo is personal, and political. What happens to it is an outcome of deeply unpleasant power relationships – much more smelly than the poo itself. I would like to wish away the smell of bad politics and lack of respect for the river, where the financial bottom line is driving down river quality standards in a race to the bottom. But I can’t. But seeing my personal actions in this connected stream helps - waste water politics is personal.
This podcast is in response to a front page headline I saw in the Guardian newspaper. ‘Tories turning rivers into open sewers’, says Starmer. A Tory being a member of the UK Conservative party, and Starmer being Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition Labour Party in the UK Parliament. In the article, Starmer spoke of country-wide sewage dumping, while those in power continue to sit on their hands, turn a blind eye. The leader of the Liberal Democrat Party (the Party in the middle, between Conservative and Labour) also got some space. He called out the water companies for perpetrating environmental crime, with dumping sewage into rivers. He called out the Environment Secretary, overseeing as she is, mass destruction of rivers in England. In response, the Conservative party claimed that things were getting better, while the water companies claimed to be meeting their targets. While at the same time setting off the river discharge map in screams of exclamation marks – the River Thames swearing as it is being violated. A choir of rivers and streams singing censored swear words, I swear. I did swear – I should have looked earlier, before swimming in the Thames this morning. It’s no surprise though – after the very heavy rainfall less than three days ago, the rivers have accelerated their pace, some fields are flooding, and the water authority (is it really an authority, when it ignores so much of the water knowledge of this very erudite English shire?) giggles with glee as it presses the sewage discharge button over and over again, over and over the Shire. It is all too personal for me.
Taking it all the way to the toilet. I sit, I shhi - poop, I flush, and it is gone, but not really. Everything is connected - how long before my poo is in the river? This front-page article was interesting – clean water (to swim in) has become a nation-wide matter of politics, just before the early May local elections.
The personal is political when it comes to my swimming, as I know it is for so many of my friends in this wonderful open water swimming community. Certainly it is political when it comes to discussing the screaming exclamation marks on the Thames Water Discharge Map. Last year the same water authority advised that it took up to four days for the discharge to clear (before being safe for swimming). The very words they used are ‘If you’re thinking of entering the river, please remember that it can take up to 4 days for the sewage to clear’. That was in an email dated 16th March 2022. Now they have given up on email alerts, a year later, and the map advises only on discharge in the previous two days. How is that truly useful? How can any swimmer know when the water is truly clear of poop if it takes 4 days to clear? What to do? Maybe we should have a brown flag scheme to signal the rivers that are regularly polluted in this way, in an opposite way to that in which clean beaches can be awarded a blue flag. I’m not sure that voting in the local elections can do anything, but I can try and support any candidate that pledges to do something about cleaning up the rivers. Or I could make my voice heard among the growing number of swimmers who are sick of sick rivers. The personal is political when river swimming and waste water are forced to mix.
Listen to the podcast here