Redeclaration of river rights ‘part of a wider survival battle’, say Friends of the Cam
The redeclaration of the rights of the River Cam celebrated the UK’s river network and asserted the right of the river Cam to exist and not be further exploited or polluted.
Organised by Friends of the Cam for the second year, the Midsummer Day event upholds the rights of rivers to exist and be properly maintained as part of a worldwide movement “seeking to reverse environmental degradation through the recognition of nature rights, including river rights”.
The redeclaration ceremony included a picnic featuring readings, music – including a rendition of It’s Crap by the Honey Hill Choir – and speeches throughout the afternoon. Photographs of water voles taken by Neil Bramwell of Milton were on display.
One of the readers was James Boyce, a Tasmanian-based author and environmental historian who has had periods living in England – “because ancestors on both my mother’s and father’s side are from the fens”. While a social worker in Norwich some years ago, researched what would become his fifth book, Imperial Mud: The Fight for the Fens (published by Icon Books in 2020).
Imperial Mud reimagines not just the history of the fens, but the history and identity of the English people. In it, Boyce posits that the current plight of our water –industrial pollution and overuse to the point of near-extinction – is an inevitable result of the drainage of the fens, which started in the 17th century and went hand in hand with the enclosures and put land and water ownership water into the hands of individuals rather than communities.
“What happened in the fens is really part of the larger imperial story,” he said while in Cambridge to attend the redeclaration. “Of course there are differences but the similarities are what caused me to write the book.
“Whole communities depended on resisting: they fought drainage in Lincolnshire and out to the north. It’s an extraordinary story which held up the drainage for 150 years. These people weren’t environmentalists in the modern sense of the word: they were traditional people, they cared about their home, it’s what their lives depended on. It’s a story that opens up our imaginations about the past – and about the future.
“Drainage and enclosures went together, it was about eliminating people’s rights, it was ‘this is my land’, and tenant farmers were brought in from overseas as people didn’t want to work on the drainage.”
James was alarmed to hear about the Environment Agency report which recorded 372,533 spills of sewage into English waterways for hundreds of thousands of hours in 2021.
“It is quite shocking that, in England in 2022, sewage would be an issue. It’s quite extraordinary and you do wonder as an outsider how many of the problems go back to the idea that water can be private property. It’s not a new thing to privatise water, which is so essential to human health and the environment – it goes back to the 19th century. As enclosures happened, people’s access got cut off. Even pathways across the countryside, and their traditional food sources and, for many, their water sources… with industrialisation the waters were getting polluted.
“The biggest public health improvements in the second half of the 20th century were in improvements in water and public sanitation. People fought for this right, to get local authorities and parliament to take a lead. Access to clean water was something people originally had; it was lost, then it was won again and it’s almost at the point now where people are having to fight for it.
“There’s something about free-flowing rivers that speaks to us very deeply. If you honour the Cam you honour the whole landboard, which is deeply interconnected with the land – it’s not just the sewage, it’s about respecting and honouring the river, to recognise our relationship with the river.”
“It was a delight to have James Boyce with us to link the historic fight for the commons of the fens to a battle to reclaim and share ownership of our land with our river,” said Friends of the Cam organiser Tony Booth.
About 150 people attended the event by the banks of the Cam on June 21. Fiona Godlee, a medical doctor and ex-editor of the British Medical Journal (BMJ), speaking by Jesus Lock, Fiona said: “I live just over there overlooking the River Cam – and I swim in the river whenever I can.
“I’m also a member of the university. But I think I’ve been invited to speak because I’m a doctor and until recently I was the editor in chief of the BMJ, so speaking up for the public health is what I’ve been doing for the past 20 years and more.
“And that has meant speaking up for the environment, because without a healthy environment, without clean air and clean water at the very least, there is no public health.
“We’re here to champion the rights of the River Cam, and all rivers – crucial ecosystems on which the world depends.”
Cllr Hannah Copley (Green, Abbey): “It is completely unacceptable that we still have sewage entering the river on Riverside in Abbey ward, and that the amounts have been increasing year on year, according to data from The Rivers Trust. Anglian Water are a ‘repeat offender’, according to the Environment Agency, and simultaneously are failing to upgrade infrastructure sufficiently to stop sewage discharges, and paying their shareholders over £5.1billion of profit over the last decade.
“By declaring the rights of the River Cam together, we are committing as campaigners to fight against the over abstraction and pollution that is causing untold damage to the river Cam, those who swim in it, and the fragile ecosystem it is part of. ”
A spokesperson for Friends of the Cam said: “It was wonderful to see so many people joining us to assert the rights of our River Cam when 150 of us stood in a circle to read the declaration of river rights together.
“Friends of the Cam is uncompromising in its campaigns against the major source of destructive forces against the Cam – over-abstraction from the river and groundwater, the illegal dumping of sewage and other pollutants, and the dash for unsustainable growth of building and infrastructure in and around our city. But our annual celebration at the summer solstice adds joy and the strengthening of community to our campaigning.”