Skip links

WI passes new campaign: ‘Clean Rivers for People and Wildlife’

Last week, our CEO James Wallace was kindly invited to the Women’s Institute annual meeting in Cardiff, to discuss the rapid degradation of our rivers from pollution and how we can all stimulate change to rescue Britain’s rivers.

There was an incredible outcome, with the WI’s new campaign Clean Rivers for People and Wildlife passing with a 84% majority!

The new campaign will encourage members to make and support applications to create bathing waters in rivers across England and Wales as a way to drive the cleanup of our precious rivers.

How you can get involved

  1. Find out more information about how to apply for inland bathing water by using the Surfers Against Sewage’s ‘Wild Water’ website.
  2. The website contains a useful nine-step guide that provides guidance about applying for designated bathing water. You can also access the Surfers Against Sewage community bathing waters toolkit here.

Expert Speaker for Clean Rivers for People and Wildlife Bathing Water Resolution

By James Wallace, 25th May 2023



Thank you for welcoming me; I am privileged to have the opportunity to speak with you today on behalf of rivers and their communities.

Until very recently I had the most amazing woman in my life. After a 9 year journey with cancer, Becca danced to the stars in February. To me, she defined love as the sun illustrates horizons: constant, pure, wise, kind, selfless, hopeful. One of her greatest joys was swimming, kayaking and walking Britain’s rivers.

I promised her that I would commit my work to securing a healthy future for our two teenage daughters, Flora and Annabelle, who are set to inherit a deeply troubled planet. Having set up various environmental organisations, River Action is my chosen home for now, a small campaigning charity with a broad smile and sharp teeth, ready to be bared when necessary.

Afterall, what is more important to EVERYONE than abundant supplies of fresh, clean water?

However, there is a national freshwater emergency

Human-induced pollution and over-abstraction, climate breakdown, collapse of ecosystems, wildlife extinctions and infectious diseases are getting worse.

Britain is the most nature-depleted nation in Europe; all our rivers are chemically polluted and only 14% are in good ecological condition.

The degradation of rivers from pollution is a national disgrace – sewage and agriculture equally share most of the blame.

Last year sewage was spilled 300,000 times across our 200,000km of waterways. Let that sink in for a moment. 1.7 million hours of sewage spilling into YOUR rivers.

Last week’s apology from the water industry was welcome, but we need to see much more than belated words: where are the legally-binding plans commitments to clean up their act, and why should bill payers foot the bill after syphoning off £72 billion from us in 10 years?

We must apply just as much pressure to intensive agriculture. 26,000 tonnes of phosphate nutrients run into England’s rivers annually, causing poisonous algal blooms that snuff out life through lack of oxygen and light.

The River Wye is a couple of years away from effective ecocide due to the manure from 24 million chickens raised in Intensive Poultry Units in Wales and England.

But despite the widespread evidence of pollution, court action against river polluters in England fell from 234 in 2002 to just 3 in 2020. My charity, River Action, is so outraged that we are taking the Environment Agency to court for failing to enforce the Farming Rules for Water not once in five years.

Pollution impacts every aspect of our lives: our livelihoods – tourism, angling, fisheries, farming, development, industry, the economy – our food and water security, and our health with e.coli causing serious infections to swimmers, rowers, even dogs.

So what’s the solution?

Pressuring the Government to designate bathing waters will force them to monitor pollution, and enforce the law, hold polluters to account and ensure they clean up their act, whether they are water companies, farmers or chemical manufacturers, while improving downstream coastal water status too.

Designated bathing sites are widespread across Europe; they should be the norm in Britain, not the exception – why shouldn’t every river and freshwater body with public access have bathing water status?

In these ecologically troubled times, we need to reconnect people with nature, especially the rivers that are our life support system.

Swimming is more natural to us than walking. We came from the water and it quenches our thirst. Swimming is our birthright, and freshwater is our greatest public asset, but it is tragically undervalued and abused.

If the WI members can galvanise communities and apply for bathing water designation across the country, you can stimulate a movement that will be hard for the Government to ignore.

You will help pressure the adoption of a legal and financial framework for success – funded regulators, pollution monitoring and binding targets for industry. Water companies will have to invest in storm overflows and fix leaks; farmers will invest in slurry storage and trade manure as a fertile resource. Support from the Government will incentivise change through farm payments for natural solutions and tax incentives for technology.

The WI will help pressure the creation of a robust framework behind the bathing waters regime and make sure it no longer pays to pollute.

What are the challenges?

There are many: the Government is being opaque about the criteria for bathing water applications and does not explain why applications are rejected.

Most are turned down – I suspect because the Environment Agency lost 70% of its funding from Defra for water regulation over the past decade and can’t afford to monitor bathing water sites and enforce the law.

There is help at hand from organisations like River Action – we champion communities to rescue Britain’s rivers from industrial pollution and government deregulation with practical and systemic ways of galvanising support and solving problems together.

We mustn’t be put off by the huge costs of fixing the water and sewage infrastructure and storm overflows – an estimated £56 billion – or be too narrowly focused on human health. By applying for bathing water status it will put pressure on the Government and all industries, spreading good practice up and down stream across agriculture and the food industry as well as water companies.

We must treat nutrients as resources not waste – spraying phosphate-laden manure into west country rivers while farms in the east import chemical fertilisers from Europe is financial and ecological insanity.

Likewise investment in natural solutions such as river buffers and restoring wetlands will change our rivers into a national nature recovery network, breathing life back into the landscape.

How can WI bathing water applications succeed?

We must prove the evidence base and need, demonstrate the causes of pollution and the perpetrators, the breadth and volume of river users as engaged stakeholders and with it the community demand for bathing water status.

We must smother Defra with data – evidence of user surveys between 15th May-30th Sept (on 20 days including 10 on weekends or bank holidays showing adult swimmers, children paddling, other users), provide information about facilities on site (access, loos, changing, parking, lifeguards, first aid and er… cake shops) and evidence of a consultation with all imaginable stakeholder groups.

But do not be afraid – the list is designed to obfuscate the applicant while satisfying every type of policy wonk’s fettish for paperwork – but persist and the bureaucrats will wilt under your stubborn proficiency.

We must collaborate – work with local authorities, landowners, water companies, schools, conservationists and recreational river users to build consensus and show the willingness of all community stakeholders to clean up our rivers.

Then we must make some noise – drum up local support through the media, gather signatures, harness respected members of the community and roll-out a celebrity advocate – Feargal Sharkey couldn’t be here today but as a slightly younger punk who is equally committed to our rivers, I can assure you there are people like him willing to lend their voices to your essential mission.

I believe WI members are key: you are doers, you make good things happen and you are well connected and integrated in your communities, playing a vital role locally, bringing people together with aplomb and a sprinkling of WI magic.

Get out there and roll-up your sleeves, be it water testing, organising events and protests or writing letters and calling a journalist. Unleash the energy and dynamism of the mighty WI!

Then when you submit your application, wait, noisily, and pray that while Defra considers whether you have dotted every i and used the right colour pen… and while they consult with national bodies including government agencies, NFU, CLA and NGOs – that the swell of support for your individual and collective applications is overwhelming.

There is no other national movement like the WI – this could be the largest collective river action, ever.

And finally, what can WI members do beyond applying for the right to swim?

Demand change through your voting – support River Action’s Charter for Rivers which asks for healthy rivers for people and nature by 2030. With a general election just around the corner, put rivers at the top of your priorities. Ask potential candidates – whichever their political persuasion – if they will commit to rivers in their manifestos, and what they will do locally.

WI members have influenced behaviour changes and consumer habits for years including pioneering Fairtrade and lower carbon footprints. To your list of sustainable food choices, consider removing £4 chickens from your shopping list. Do we really need cheap meat everyday?

In conclusion:

Together locally and nationally the WI can pressure and support industry and government to protect and restore our rivers for the sake of your children and grandchildren. I will be helping in the name of Becca, Flora and Annabelle.

Let’s see a flood of dozens of applications for bathing water status across the country. Your collective strength could swing regulatory reform, investment decisions, industry practices, elections even.

Imagine what a united WI could achieve with a campaign across all river catchments and communities. Even if many aren’t approved, the ensuing public outrage will send ripples through the corridors and boardrooms of power.

I invite you to support the resolution for bathing water; we face an existential freshwater emergency; the good ship Britannia risks sinking and it’s time to swim for our lives!

Leave a comment