Rising rivers reveal the truth””

Emily Cooper


After a soggy few weeks, many of our rivers are looking fit to burst. If you’ve spent time near the river recently, you have probably noticed some less than welcome guests: wet wipes, plastic bottles, and a whole host of different items which belong in the bin. Why does this happen? Does flooding make river pollution look worse than it really is?

Why do rivers look so terrible after periods of high rain?

When we experience heavy rain, the river can become more turbulent, deeper, and flow faster than before. This means that rubbish which was previously hidden or dispersed can all congregate in one location, forming a raft of litter like the one shown in the pictures below. In addition, heavy rain can trigger the discharge of sewage into the river. During periods of prolonged rain, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) kick in to prevent our homes from flooding, but at a price: untreated sewage is released directly into waterways. This means that anything which gets flushed down the toilet or poured down the sink has the potential to end up polluting your local river. From oils and cleaning products to wet wipes and cotton buds, our dedicated team have seen it all. To find out more about the issue, we spoke to Mark Barrows. Mark is an underwater filmmaker, who has been documenting UK rivers for over 30 years. During this time, he has developed a detailed knowledge of what our rivers should look like, enabling him to sense even the smallest of changes. Recently, Mark released photos documenting the plight of our waterways, demonstrating just how bad the problem has become.
"After filming underwater in our UK rivers for over 30 years, there never has been a better time to protect what we have. Our rivers are facing a new type of pollution from plastic and we all need to get on board to stop it, images I have filmed of plastic underwater are shocking. Even periods of light rain with diluted sewage discharges which I have filmed to me are of concern and a worry. It is not all doom and gloom, we have some amazing species and life that live within our freshwater environment and yet again in 2019 I have had an amazing time filming them, but more needs to be done to protect this unique environment for the future. The rivers are the arteries of a country and like any artery if they fail to work it has effects elsewhere. Nature does not need us. But we need nature. Let 2020 see the start of protecting this important habitat for future generations to enjoy."
As Mark says, we all need to work harder to protect these precious ecosystems. One of the best things about rivers is that they can bounce back, even after years of mistreatment—but we all need to work together to bring them back from the brink.
We believe that one of the issues contributing to river pollution is misinformation. Many people don't understand how their actions can impact rivers - do you?

True or false?

If I put my litter in the bin, it can’t end up in the river

False! Many people believe that river litter is solely a result of people throwing their rubbish into the water. However, this isn’t the case. Litter which is destined for landfill can ‘escape’ and enter our natural ecosystems. Rubbish can easily blow out of bins, or be jolted out of vehicles used to transport it to landfill. In order to reduce the amount of litter in our rivers, we need to stop consuming so many single-use products. Our society's reliance on throwaway items is a scourge on our ecosystems.

What I put down the toilet doesn’t impact rivers - it just goes into a sewer!

False! During periods of high rain, sewage can be released directly into our rivers. This means that whatever you flush down the toilet or pour down the sink could also end up polluting your local river. Lots of items people flush away do not break down: things like cotton buds, tampons and wet wipes could persist in the ecosystem for years to come, causing harm wildlife.

Joining a clean up can help to improve rivers

True! The pollution of our rivers is an extensive problem, and until we shift away from our throwaway culture, it’s likely that river litter will continue to be an issue. However, we can help to alleviate the burden on our rivers in the short term by carrying out litter picks. Take a look at our events page to find a clean up near you!

There are natural ways to reduce flood risk

True! Although artificial dams are often seen as the ‘go-to’ for defending against flooding, they can actually cause more harm than good. There are a plethora of environmentally friendly ways to stop flooding, often collectively referred to as Natural Flood Management (NFM).

What now?

If you'd like to keep up to date with Mark, follow him on Twitter.
  • Donate to help fund river cleanups and education
  • Volunteer to tackle the problem yourself
  • Fundraise to support our efforts to tackle plastic pollution
WaterCoG This article was supported by the NSR Interreg project, WaterCoG.
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