'Indefensible abuse' of rivers criticised by Archbishop of Wales

The state of Welsh rivers is a topic which has been dominating the headlines in recent years with warnings that pollution from agriculture is "killing" some waterways.

Now, the Archbishop of Wales, Revd Andrew John, has added his voice, calling the abuse of rivers "indefensible".

During a meeting held in Newport, he told members of the Church in Wales that raw sewage and farming practices were killing rivers, referring to the "tragic" situation in the Wye Valley.

In 2023, pollution levels in the River Wye led to its status being reclassified from "unfavourable-improving" to "unfavourable-declining", with key species like salmon and white-clawed crayfish experiencing decline.

It comes after campaign group River Action took legal action against the Environment Agency over chicken poo pollution. The Environment Agency told ITV Wales they could not comment on the active legal proceedings.

Revd Andrew John said it was the role of the church to speak out on issues of fairness and justice.

He said: "We recognise investment is being made to improve our drainage.

Reverend Andrew John is calling for more to be done to save Wales' rivers.

"However, all of us – including the industry, regulators, government and local authorities - must play a part in halting this indefensible abuse of the most essential element of life.

"I think it is really essential that Christians engage with these issues and show that we have a concern for life as it is."

Angela Jones has lived along the River Wye for 40 years.

For the past six years, she has been gathering data on water quality across Wales, and teaching others to do the same.

Describing the current state of our waterways, Angela dubbed it "diabolical".

She said: "We are on the verge of ecological collapse, our rivers are used as open sewers...it is not good enough."

She welcomed the Church of Wales' intervention, saying: "It's absolutely marvellous that the Archbishop has come on board and is supporting what we are all saying because this is mother nature and we need that power in voices."

Angela has kayaked, swam and camped along the River Wye for 40 years. Credit: Angela Jones

Natural Resources Wales say river pollution levels as a whole have improved significantly over the years, but head of operations Sian Williams said more can be done.

She said: "We shouldn’t rest on our laurels, we see new challenges coming. In terms of land use, farming practices, and the way we get our food…all of these things are putting pressure on the environment.”

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "Ensuring our water is of the highest quality is a vital part of making Wales a prosperous, happy and healthy place to live and work, and plays a central role in our response to the nature and climate emergencies.

"We have been clear that we expect all water companies operating in Wales to deliver excellent services across all areas of operation. We will to continue to work together to deliver further improvements for people and for our environment.

"Our 'special area of conservation' rivers are under immense pressure from a range of challenges. The evidence demonstrates that whilst varying from catchment to catchment, a significant proportion of phosphorus pollution across most SAC rivers, including the Wye, comes from rural land use.

Testing the cleanliness of some of Wales' rivers shows the extent at how polluted they are.

"We all have a shared interest in improving our river health across Wales, and it is vital we continue to take a collaborative approach with government, regulators and all relevant sectors working together.

"Our fifth river summit will take place in July and will centre around the role of agriculture."

In statement, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water said: "Protecting river water quality is an absolute priority for us and something we take seriously.

"In the decade to 2025, we will have invested £1.5billion in our wastewater system which is delivering real benefits for the environment. Testament to this is the fact that 44% of rivers and waterbodies in Wales meet good ecological status compared to 16% in England and furthermore Wales has a quarter of the UK's blue flag beaches while only having 15% of the coastline.

"We know that more still needs to be done which is why we have proposed a £4billion investment programme for 2025 to 2030. If approved by our regulator Ofwat, this will be our most ambitious investment plan to date with £2.5billion earmarked for environmental schemes alone. This will include a comprehensive programme of upgrades to our wastewater treatment works that will remove 90% of our phosphorous discharges by 2030.

"We have over 5,000 environmental permits as Wales has some of the largest numbers of treatment works, pumping stations and storm overflows in the UK. We are continually monitoring and when we find issues, we share this data with regulators, investigate and deliver improvements."

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