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Reviewed: Pure Clean Water, ‘a Cowspiracy for water’, is an extraordinary Cambridge documentary





Pure Clean Water, which premieres at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse on October 25, is remarkable for the restrained and disciplined approach it takes to a looming tipping point for the natural spring at Nine Wells.

Stephen Tomkins of Cam Valley Forum puts it most plainly when he says, right at start of this astonishing 62-minute documentary: “We have abused the environment for many, many decades and it’s time to stop.”

From left are Tony Eva, writer/producer on Pure Clean Water; Paul McGhee, historical advisor to Pure Clean Water; Christine Lloyd-Fitt, assistant producer, sound & continuity on PureClean Water; and Nigel Kinnings, cinematographer on Pure Clean Water. Picture: Helen McGee
From left are Tony Eva, writer/producer on Pure Clean Water; Paul McGhee, historical advisor to Pure Clean Water; Christine Lloyd-Fitt, assistant producer, sound & continuity on PureClean Water; and Nigel Kinnings, cinematographer on Pure Clean Water. Picture: Helen McGee

We are given a tour of how we got to where we are today. The problem stems from the fact that the chalk stream water – the pure clean water of the title – currently contributes 22 litres of water per second to meet demand in and around Cambridge. That’s nearly 2m litres a day from a spring which we hear “has been flowing continuously for thousands of years”. Even the Cambridge Water spokesperson in the film squirms slightly when he presents us with this devastating fact.

We take a meandering look around how the supply of water became more organised in the 19th century, leading eventually to the tragedy of private ownership and its disastrous consequences – a toxic combination of sewage, pollution, and increasing bills.

We learn that, around 1850, Cambridge’s expanding population coincided with greater availability of pumping engines. The Cambridge University and Town Waterworks company was established in 1853, ushering in the era of piped water supply. From then on those who could afford it had access to piped water, rather than walking to the market with their bucket.

Gradually, we realise that Cambridge, “a city drier than Barcelona and Monaco”, is being badly mismanaged and the city is slowly losing its habitats, chalk streams and river life.

Babraham Pumping Station opened in 1961, setting off “a catastrophic chain of events”, says Steve Boreham, a geologist and ecologist who is also a trustee of Hobson’s Conduit Trust.

The Trust is responsible for the upkeep of Hobson’s Brook from Nine Wells to the Conduit Head, and the underground channels originally built through Cambridge to provide water for the population.

We have a look round some University of Cambridge colleges and the head gardeners point out the damage already done. The effect of the chalk stream water being abstracted elsewhere is a calamity. Is this the first time we have had a glimpse of what is going on in the centre of the city as University colleges struggle to maintain landscapes that are considerably more barren than they once were?

We visit Babraham Pumping Station and it looks like a chemical waste site with ‘Corrosive’ warnings, stating that protective clothing must be worn at all times – ‘PPE for chemicals’.

Gradually – it’s like an episode of The Prisoner or The Truman Show – we realise we are surrounded by an actual catastrophe which has long been unfolding in plain sight but never been called out. We are living in the later stages of a delusion. How – why? – have we propped up our cynical, dysfunctional model for a basic human right – clean water – for so long?

The simple answer is that water is still coming out of our taps, and so the grand illusion continues...

Rob Bakewell, drought project manager ·at the Environment Agency, tells us “we must reduce abstraction by 55 per cent in order to protect the chalk streams”.

Can we? You decide. Watch this film, it’s a Cowspiracy for water.

Market Hill before the fire of 1849 with people obtaining their water from Hobson's Conduit.
Market Hill before the fire of 1849 with people obtaining their water from Hobson's Conduit.

Pure Clean Water features a very high quality of guest talking with a great deal of honesty in response to Tony Eva’s politely formulated – and forensically scripted – questions. They include Sally Petitt, head of horticulture, Cambridge University Botanic Garden; Brendon Sims, head gardener, Emmanuel College; Paul McGhee, local historian; and Guy Belcher, biodiversity officer, Cambridge City Council.

Following the October 25 showing a panel discussion will take place at the Arts Picturehouse, moderated by BBC Radio Cambridgeshire presenter Chris Mann, and featuring Tony Eva, Cllr Katie Thornburrow and Dr Alan Hudd, founder of cleantech manufacturing company Alchemie Technology, which is sponsoring the premiere. Full ticket details here.



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