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Friends of the river Cam’s summer solstice event overshadowed by dead fish in the water





The 2023 Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam was conducted on Jesus Green on the summer solstice as part of an event which included stalls, music and speakers marking a solemn moment - dead fish were photographed floating further downstream on the Cam following recent downpours.

The backdrop - this tragic milestone - contrasted with the hope and enthusiasm on display at this, the third year anniversary of the event organised by Friends of the River Cam.

Taking a stand at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on summer solstice 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Taking a stand at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on summer solstice 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

The ceremonies began with a reading of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Where the Mind is without Fear’ by Preeti Sekhon, who likened the Cam to the Ganges and said that all rivers are sacred.

Neil Williams of Rights of Water Bodies said that Cambridge is not the only place where “local communities are banding together to assert the rights of nature”.

“That means two things,” he added. “One is that nature has rights and we ought to protect it for its own sake. The second is for local communities to be able to care for the river for its own sake, with no economic interests involved.

“The hope is that this will blossom here and in the UK and across the world.”

Third up were members of Cottenham Climate Forum who have organised a meeting at Cottenham Village Hall on Jun 28, 7-9pm.

The representative told the crowd of maybe 200 on the green: “Our subject is flooding. Certain parts of the village are threatened by flooding which is in part caused by overdevelopment which mean more concrete and less habitat, and the flooding happens when there’s deluges of rain. Council officials will be at the meeting.”

Zareen Taj and Cathy Dunbar at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam at Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Zareen Taj and Cathy Dunbar at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam at Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

Alban Krashi spoke from the River Don project, which is exploring the potential of the River Don in obtaining legal personhood status.

James Murray-White, the environmentalist and film maker who recently moved to Fen Ditton, said: “When I was a child you could swim in the river, you could fish in it.

Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam at Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam at Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

“We know the River Cam is in crisis and, as you will know, some dead fish have been seen in the Cam, probably because there is too little oxygen in the water.

“We know we have problems with the overdevelopment in the area but I want to bring us back to the sensitivity of the ecology. Let’s start with water - that’s it in a nutshell.”

Peter Clitheroe of Gaywood River Revival in West Norfolk, which highlights “Norfolk’s forgotten chalk stream” and its wellbeing. The care of the river, he said, is a scandal.

“They dredge it every year, and every year there’s dead fish.”

Jason Scott-Warren at Jesus Green. Picture: Mike Scialom
Jason Scott-Warren at Jesus Green. Picture: Mike Scialom

Monica Frisch from Loving Cherry Hinton Brook, which is a chalk stream, said: “Chalk streams are important habitats because they’re spring-fed. There’s only 200 in the world and 85 per cent of them are in England. Quite a lot are in East Anglia.

“We collect litter - there’s a lot of it - and monitor wildlife, check the flow, and do a newsletter which is about enjoying what we have and let’s look after it, and seek to improve the condition of our streams and rivers.”

Fang-Jui Chang and Shu Yang Lin were over from Taiwan and spoke about the river activist group which is “encouraging more care for rivers and waterways”. The two women, who are “very interested in learning” about the Cam, provided a global perspective and were followed by Jason Scott-Wren, who teaches at the University of Cambridge as well as being very active in recording the exact state of play as climate records continue to be broken.

“We’re living in a strange simulacrum of the old weather we had,” he said. “We’re all wondering which way it will go. There’s no butterflies and there’s dead fish in the river today, and it is all pretty horrible but if you watch the news you wouldn’t realise anything is wrong. It feels like continual gaslighting to get us to carry on as usual.

Rhythms of the River choir before their performance on Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom
Rhythms of the River choir before their performance on Jesus Green on June 21, 2023. Picture: Mike Scialom

“I teach at the university, which is its own organism. It’s a strange institution full of extraordinary minds but what it can’t do is think itself into the new catastrophe, so the logic is business as usual which means they have to get the money from wherever they can get it, which can mean getting into bed with nefarious institutions.

“We need to find a way to stop the logic and it’s taking a long time, and now the laws around protests are being changed. So the question is ‘how can we break the iron logic of how we always do things? We’re in a situation where it’s going to get catastrophic on a scale that’s not imaginable.”

The Stop Rosebank stand at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Stop Rosebank stand at the Declaration of the Rights of the River Cam on Jesus Green. Picture: Mike Scialom

The mood then changed as Lefty Men’s choir who sang ‘What Shall We Do for our Shrunken River?’, adapted from ‘What Shall We Do with the Drunken Sailor?’ by Richard Freedman and Tony Booth.

The lyrics refer to the UK’s current water crisis, which is seeing water bills rising even as water quality tumbles.

‘Make them stop their buccaneering

Skimming off and racketeering

Investment YES not profiteering

Early in the morning.’

The Rhythms of the River choir conducted by Helen East at the Friends of the River Cam summer solstice event. Picture: Mike Scialom
The Rhythms of the River choir conducted by Helen East at the Friends of the River Cam summer solstice event. Picture: Mike Scialom

Right after that came the reading of the declaration of the rights of the River Cam, which everyone reads. The declaration was followed by more music, including from the female choir Rhythms of the River, beautifully conducted by Helen East, and the Save Honey Hill and the Crap Community Choir, who say “there is a chance of stopping the decision to move the sewage works to Honey Hill”.

“What we’re looking for,” concluded Tony Booth, one of the founders of the Friends of the River Cam and the organiser of the solstice redeclaration event, “is a slowing down of the development of our river.

“This is the third year we’re read the declaration of the rights of the river and I’ve increasingly come to understand that we can’t separate the rights of the river from human rights because we’re part of nature.”



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