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  • Writer's pictureJulie Vouillemin

Paul Whitehouse: Our Troubled Rivers – Review

Julie Vouillemin reviews the BBC documentary which explores the polluted state of the UK’s rivers.

For anyone who cares about the countryside and our rivers, Paul Whitehouse’s hard-hitting exposé of the polluted state of our waterways would feel as outraged as the presenter. Despite his humorous, jokey delivery, there was very little to laugh about as Whitehouse presented stark fact after stark fact: in 2021, United Utilities discharged treated and untreated sewage for over 540,000 hours.

His anger and disbelief are mainly directed at the water companies in the first episode, while the second takes a look at other pollution sources such as high intensity farming. Shockingly, water companies are illegally discharging untreated sewage into our rivers and waterways in huge quantities.

Whilst companies are allowed during heavy rainfall to discharge untreated sewage through a number of combined sewer overspill pipes (CSOs), the practice is widespread even during dry weather. The evidence presented in the programme shows companies breaking the law and regulators, such as OFWAT and the Environment Agency (EA), seemingly letting them get away with it.

In the first episode Whitehouse meets Mark Barrow, an environmental campaigner in North Yorkshire, battling to save the River Wharfe from sewage dumps. Barrow regularly dons his wetsuit to delve beneath the seemingly clean water to see what lurks below. The picture on the stretch by Ilkley Sewage Works isn’t pretty: excrement, or as Whitehouse puts it ‘turds’.

One of the most shocking moments of the episode comes as Whitehouse, watching from the river bank, sees Barrow emerge holding used sanitary towels and wet wipes. It’s hard to believe that these items are still flushed down toilets; a governmental education campaign as to why they shouldn’t is clearly needed.

“I still find it astonishing that water companies would put untreated sewage into our rivers. I can’t begin to rationalise it on any level.” - Paul Whitehouse

From the filthy rivers of West Yorkshire, Whitehouse moves to the River Tame in Greater Manchester. According to Professor Jamie Woodward, professor of physical geography at Manchester University, the water at Duckinfield holds the unenviable honour of having the highest concentration of microplastics on its riverbed in the world.

Whitehouse literally does a double take as he quietly repeats "in the world", hammering home the depressing reality of this statistic as an "acute contamination hotspot".

He also speaks to a fellow angler, Chris Clark who witnessed raw sewage being pumped into the river on the very day the Environment Agency was replenishing its fish stocks! Evidence if any were needed, that the EA is not doing its job of protecting our waterways.

It’s not clear if the Chairs and Chief Executives of the water companies were approached to appear on the documentary but their absence adds to the impression of an uncaring sector. What we were left with was Whitehouse tonelessly reading out bland, corporate statements from various water companies, “We understand people’s concerns...” and “We are working hard with customers...”. None inspired confidence that the water companies would stop polluting our rivers anytime soon.

In the second episode, Whitehouse explores the impact of agriculture, specifically the levels of poultry farm waste (chicken excrement) polluting the River Wye. Around 20 million chickens are raised in the Wye area, equating to about 25% of the UK’s poultry production. The chicken excrement is spread as manure over agricultural land and in times of high rainfall is washed into the River Wye. The phosphorous causes algal blooms which turns the river green and suffocates plants.

The programme clearly explains the link between the over-rearing of chickens and the effect on water quality. Whitehouse also explores how water abstraction impacts chalk streams in the south of England and how sewage outspills in Whistable are destroying the long-established livelihood of oyster producers.

After watching the two-part documentary, the overwhelming feeling is one of incredulity. How can the Environment Agency, and the government it reports to, allow the water companies to continue to illegally pollute our rivers without any real comeback? Why aren’t there stricter curbs to prevent nitrate and phosphate run off from agriculture?

Of course, it is a complex problem and funding, and resources are clearly an issue but saving and protecting our rivers for future generations has to come before company profits.

Was there any reason to feel hopeful? Yes, there were plenty of individuals in the programme prepared to ‘stand up and fight’ about the situation. Leading the charge is Feargal Sharkey, former singer turned campaigner, who has spent years highlighting the water pollution scandal. The programme also highlighted Thames Water’s ongoing project to build a £4.4 billion upgrade to the sewerage system to reduce the amount of untreated raw sewage entering the River Thames.

Finally, the hope is that the programme will shame the polluters, galvanise campaigners and wake up the government and enforcement agencies. Action, not bland words, is what’s needed now to reverse the damage done. Only then can we all enjoy the pleasures of a swim in a river, a paddle at our local beach and the joy of eating Whitstable oysters.

By Julie Vouillemin ©

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1 comentário

Dominique Vouillemin
Dominique Vouillemin
22 de mar. de 2023

This excellent piece skilfully and compellingly draws attention to problems we all too often pretend do not exist.

I am moved to watch the original programme and to act in however small a way to combat this. How is it possible to watch and realise we participate in such devastation without engaging in some way?

Thank you so much for the wake up reminder.

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