Foetid Runnels

Arianne Shahvisi

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.


  • 2 November 2021 at 5:08pm
    Brian Holton says:
    You're right, England's water is privatised, but Scotland's isn't.

  • 2 November 2021 at 5:39pm
    John Miles says:
    83% in favour of renationalisation is an impressive proportion. But does it represent a real active interest in solving the question of sewage? A few years ago a sympathetic local politician referred to our campaigns to restore Haringey's hidden Moselle Brook as a niche problem. 'Who wants a smelly river at the bottom of their garden?' another neighbour commented. As with so many issues the sheer fragmentation of responsibility and infrastructure in England now seems to defeat the reconstitution of moral community. I hope environmental personhood can play a role where other narratives have so far failed. It seems amazing that putting shit into water remains our preferred option in the first place. But somehow it does. Something very fundamental will have to shift if we're to persuade enough people of the virtues of an alternative. If it doesn't renationalisation may have us less fleeced but still leave us 'back on our heads', immersed in a reality we contrive not to notice.

  • 2 November 2021 at 9:57pm
    Joan Druett says:
    In New Zealand we are currently having public discussion over a "Three Waters" proposal, which will take water out of the hands of various councils, and place it under the control of a government body with iwi (Maori) input. This is brilliant background to a rather opaque issue. Thank you so much.

  • 3 November 2021 at 12:02am
    David Roser says:
    Having long worked on water quality, hydrology, treatment protection of environmental values etc. I know well the catastrophes identified here. However this idea of humans generously confering 'personhood' or other legal rights as a central principle leaves me cold. It suggests the solution is to, rather than replace, merely modify our anthropocentric view of nature, which got us into this mess in the first place, to something more cuddly. Unfortunately this perspective leads, for philosophical (thank you John Locke) and pragmatic reasons (person has to eat), and greed for property, to our viewing the finite natural world as merely an infinite 'natural resource' to be mined, traded, consumed, used as a tip and so forth. True Western capitalism has brought the art of exploitation to a new peak. But the same process occurred as long as there has been civilization e.g. the Ancient degradation of the fertile crescent. In any case the rest of the (3rd) world is currently following the West's example. What to do? Three approaches offer some promise. Pragmatically there is the need for economists to spend some time contemplating the beauty and majesty of a wilderness or ocean and recognising how wrong headed their prioritization of money as the measure of all value is, and instead our dependency on the natural environment rather than vice versa. A baby step might be to consider the concept of 'Environmental Values' (RESER & BENTRUPPERBÄUMER 2005. What and where are environmental values? Journal of Environmental Psychology, 25, 125-146) and go from there. For the philosophically inclined, currently bound up in anthropocentrically obsessed postmodernism, there is Deep Ecology. Though the latter has many shortcomings it does scope a shopping list needed to discard crude utilitarianism, even if its applicability to 8 billion souls begs a few questions. And for those torn between their love for humanity and the spiritual aspects and 'rights' of nature there is no better work that Aldo Leopold's Sand County Alamanac. Nuff said.

    • 3 November 2021 at 7:51pm
      Michael Davies says: @ David Roser
      I sympathise with the spirit of this comment but I am unsure about the argument. Conferring personhood onto rivers (and other entities or the environment as a whole, cf. "Do Trees Have Standing?") leaves them less open to being viewed as a natural resource than the status quo, precisely because legal persons have e.g. rights that protect them from the genre of commodification that we see implied by, for example, natural capital approaches. There is a world of difference between anthropocentrism and what one might term environmental legal anthropomorphism - the latter might protect us from the former.

  • 5 November 2021 at 11:54am
    dave hall says:
    Great piece on the intimate links between the sewage pollution problems and the privatised system of ownership, control and (captured) regulation - and great to make the link to these court rulings on the rights of rivers. Public ownership may not be a sufficient condition for a solution, but it does seem to be a necessary condition - as the rest of the world has already decided, along with 83% of ourselves. And even here there has been a lot of discussion about more democratic and participatory ways of running water and other public services, e.g. see .

    The 'human rights of rivers' approach has been tried elsewhere too, notably in Colombia following a judgment on the Atrato river. Creating the rights doesn't by itself deliver them, because of the political economy behind the pollution: see . But the ruling has created a wave of activity centered around creating public institutions and getting them to adopt and deliver the necessary policies: . That's surely the lesson of both the English experience and the 'rights of rivers' rulings.

  • 6 November 2021 at 12:49am
    Graucho says:
    A modest proposal. Pick rivers at random once a year and then require the board members of the local water company to go for a swim. Refusal will disqualify you as a fit person to run such an enterprise.

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