In 2017, following a 140-year legal dispute between the government of Aotearoa New Zealand and the Māori people, the Whanganui River was granted personhood. Two years later, the Supreme Court of Bangladesh bestowed legal personhood on every one of its rivers. Earlier this year, the Magpie River in Quebec became a legal person following a campaign by the Indigenous Innu people. Enforcement is awkward, and rights must be realised through human guardians, but the symbolism of these recognitions is radical and far-reaching. They destabilise conceptions of nature as a store of commodities. Personified rivers are granted the right to flow, the right not to be polluted, and the right to sue.
While rivers elsewhere are gaining moral recognition, England’s are full of shit. No river in England reaches the minimum standard for chemical health, and only 14 per cent are ecologically healthy. Poor regulation of sewage discharge and agricultural run-off has led to the build-up of heavy metals, pesticides, fertilisers, wet wipes, condoms, menstrual products, plastics, endocrine disruptors and pathogens. Fragile ecosystems are being destroyed.
Britain has a combined sewerage system: rainwater drains to the same pipes as wastewater from toilets, showers, sinks, washing machines, farms and factories. The whole foetid runnel sloshes along underground networks into the vats of treatment works, where solids sink into sludge (which can be used as agricultural fertiliser or dried into cakes of fuel for electricity generation), and liquids are tapped off and aerated so that benign micro-organisms can metabolise their hazardous cousins. Once treated, clean water is returned to the wild.
Heavy storms disrupt this scheme by overwhelming sewers with rainwater. To prevent them backing up and spewing dilute excreta through areas of human habitation, untreated sewage is deliberately discharged into rivers and the sea. Guarding against rogue leaks requires us to tolerate calculated spills from time to time, to minimise the overall public health risk.
Overflows are supposed to be exceptional, pis aller events. Yet in 2020, untreated sewage was discharged into rivers in England more than 400,000 times, amounting to three million hours (or 342 years) of flow. Might it be better for the environment for some of us to save the flush and defecate directly into waterways?
Storm overflows are becoming business-as-usual for a confluence of reasons. Climate change is increasing the regularity and severity of storms, and surface water runoff has risen because of urbanisation. Landscapes whose porous soils acted as sponges for excess water, allowing it to gradually evaporate or slowly drain into sewers, have been sealed under less permeable surfaces: concrete, tarmac, block-paving, artificial turf. Britain’s sewer system was designed to service a much smaller population. Private water companies have underinvested in infrastructure and taken advantage of lax government regulation to default to the cheapest option for managing waste – precisely the outcome that sewage infrastructure was designed to avoid.
Earlier this week, 265 Tory MPs rejected an amendment to the environment bill to place a legal duty on water companies not to discharge untreated sewage into rivers. The widespread backlash from constituents seemed to take them by surprise, as though they’d assumed we’d be unfussed by the thought of paddling with tampons and turds. Boris Johnson, as usual, stuck his finger to the wind of social media outrage and hurried through a U-turn: the government will now ask companies to reduce the amount of sewage they pump over the next five years. The details are vague: the objective is not to stem the stream of effluent but to get rid of the stink.
If the Māori were the first people to win legal recognition for a waterway, the British government was the first to fully commodify water. The Thatcher administration put our water on the market in 1989 with all its debts written off. Thirty years later, the private water companies have debts of £50 billion. They’ve paid £13 billion in dividends to shareholders over the past ten years. Meanwhile, household water bills are £2.3 billion higher than they would have been if the system hadn’t been privatised, and our rivers are thick with excrement. Unsurprisingly, 83 per cent of British people are in favour of renationalisating the water industry. They are not alone: 180 cities across the world – including Accra, Berlin, Kuala Lumpur and Paris – have recently remunicipalised their water in response to underinvestment, poor management and soaring bills under private ownership.
When the Whanganui River was granted personhood, the then minister of Treaty Negotiations, Chris Finlayson, acknowledged that ‘some people will say it’s pretty strange to give a natural resource a legal personality. But it’s no stranger than family trusts, or companies.’ It is telling that we are asked to make sense of environmental personhood by analogy with the apparently more intuitive idea of corporate personhood. (Corporate rights follow so naturally from the current economic regime that they can trump those of actual persons: in 2013, the US craft retailer Hobby Lobby was allowed to deny its employees contraception on their health insurance plans on the grounds that the corporation’s religious beliefs must be respected.)
While many Indigenous communities recognise other threads of the biosphere as relatives deserving of moral consideration, Western epistemologies encourage their adherents to see the same entities as commodities whose proprietors and profiteers must be protected. This is a failure of our culture as much as it is a failure of our economy. One of the key ideological tenets of colonisation has been the objectification of people and the environment.
Decolonising a burning world requires us to confront the fact that Western conceptions of nature are very often, to use its own slurs, ‘uncivilised’, ‘backward’, ‘barbaric’. If we are going to avert disaster, it can only be through an expansion of our moral community. Discovering that our land is criss-crossed by rivers of our own waste may be just the dressing-down we need to acknowledge that we are doing very badly indeed, and the lessons we must learn are likely to come from other places and other peoples.