River Wandle Declared Climate Crime Scene

XR Wandsworth April Fool stunt had a serious message

Protestors assem

April 4, 2023

This Saturday (1 April), part of the River Wandle was cordoned off and a forensics team fully clad in hazmat suits, gloves, shoe protectors and goggles was seen on the site.

However, this was not the police but rather members of Extinction Rebellion Wandsworth who had declared a climate crime scene at the junction of Mapleton Road and Garratt Lane.

The intention was not to make fools of people but to warn members of the public about what’s in their water. In 2022, according to their own data, just released, Thames Water spilled sewage into the Wandle 63 times. The company also discharged sewage into the Graveney, which feeds into the Wandle, 119 times.

The Wandle is a rare urban chalk stream, one of only two in London. Only 200 chalk streams are known globally, 85% of which are found in the UK in southern and eastern England. A chalk stream should be clear, healthy and full of life. But the Wandle is polluted. An on-site forensics lab allowed members of the public to see what pollutants its water may at times contain:

• Raw sewage
• E.Coli bacteria
• Coliform bacteria
• Hepatitis A
• Ammonia and nitrates
• Phosphates & sulphates
• Heavy metals
• Microplastics
• Macroplastic, eg wipes, sanitary products, etc

‘This is bad for human health and bad for wildlife,’ says Andrew Harding, a member of the group.

Wandle CSI. Members of XR Wandsworth explain what's in the water
Wandle CSI. Members of XR Wandsworth explain what's in the water

Water companies are only allowed to release sewage into rivers only in exceptional circumstances, for instance during storms or unusually heavy rain, so XR Wandsworth claim that most of these discharges could have been illegal.

The campaigners say that Thames Water should be paying out less to shareholders and executives and investing more in its crumbling infrastructure which is set to come under greater strain as climate change causes heavier and more frequent rainfall.

This protest was part of a ‘Dirty Water’ campaign across the UK drawing attention to the polluted state of the UK’s waterways. The latest figures from the Environment Agency show an average of 825 sewage spills per day into England's waterways in 2022, a total of 301,081 sewage spills. Only 14% of the UK’s rivers achieve ‘good’ ecological status.

XR Wandsworth says that the government shares the blame as it has failed to regulate the water industry, including Thames Water, effectively.

However, ministers are expected to announce plans in the near future to ‘make polluters pay’ – lifting a cap of £250,000 for penalties for firms that release sewage into rivers and the sea.

‘This would be a step in the right direction,’ says Harding. ‘The difficulty would be proving that illegal sewage spills have occurred, especially as the Environment Agency is so underfunded it can’t carry out adequate monitoring.’

XR Wandsworth believes one thing that could be a potential game changer is if rivers had legal rights. ‘Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, wants legal rights for the river Seine,’ says Diana McCann, also a member of the group and of Thames Blue Green Economy, which campaigns for fully integrated water management. ‘What about the Thames?’

‘The government and the water companies aren’t going to clean up unless ordinary people put pressure on them. Extinction Rebellion can’t do this alone,’ says McCann. ‘We need everyone who cares about our rivers and seas to stand up with us and speak out. Join us at the Houses of Parliament on 21 April and demand change.’

So far over 70 NGOs organisations have publicly declared they will be supporting ‘The Big One’, 21-24 April.

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