The River Wye is dying, and to say Charles Watson isn’t happy about it would be a huge understatement. The keen fisherman and former PR and digital communications business specialist is absolutely outraged at the damage that has been done by agricultural pollution to what is supposedly one of the most protected rivers in Europe.
“Rivers sustain life! They’re for livelihood, health and recreation. They’re economic arteries too. What they’re not is open sewers and liquid corridors for waste!” As a result of the crisis in the Wye, Charles has been taking action – River Action, to be precise.
River Action is a UK-based environmental charity ‘committed to addressing the severe problem of river pollution, particularly that caused by agricultural and food industry practices’. It was set up in 2020, after Charles became aware of the dire situation on the Wye, as a virtual movement of people with the will and various ways of contributing to combatting the rivers crisis. Not wanting to duplicate or compete with existing efforts, River Action set out with the intention of helping to support, mentor and raise funds for those already acting.
In particular, Charles recognised the added value he could bring in the form of his vast business experience. After thirty years in the industry, he knows exactly how to apply pressure in the form of reputational risk to the big players at the root of the river pollution problem. So that is what they did.
“From my experience in advising on the risks of consumer backlash and investor backlash around poor environmental behaviour, I knew we could poke the companies to blame where it hurts to get them to act quicker”.
River Action’s first big project was a deep dive into what – or rather who – was responsible for the excessive eutrophication that was killing the River Wye. Previously famous for its Water Crowfoot (Ranunculus aquatilis) weed, the river has gone green with algal blooms and agricultural pollution is the main culprit. More specifically, the pollution is waste from chicken sheds in the Wye catchment that are the start of the supply chain for big food conglomerates, which in turn supply large supermarkets.
Whilst the pollution is being produced by the farmers, it would be unfair and largely unhelpful simply to blame these farmers, because they are operating on contracts with minimal profit margins. More and more it is being recognised that the ‘big corporates’ are the actors responsible for and with the power to do something about the problem, but rarely are they made to do so. This time, however, was different. Utilising contacts and experience from his days in PR, Charles led River Action in calling out Noble Foods, Avara Foods and Tesco on the damage they are causing through their procurement process. A list of demands was presented to these companies, mostly along the lines of insisting on proper environmental standards throughout the supply chain. In this way, River Action have already catalysed change in the corporate sector, with more to follow.
Indeed, River Action is already helping to support various local organisations and citizen science projects throughout the country beyond the River Wye. In exchange for the support they provide, River Action gains access to stories, which are valuable assets in the reputational risk game. In Devon for example, a deliberate leak of dairy farm slurry caused the death of around 2000 fish; in the North East, there was mass deaths of shellfish where filth is washed into the rivers; and in the Lake District, despite its UNESCO world heritage site status, Lake Windemere turned bright green with toxic algae over the summer due to sewage discharges. These are but a few of the harrowing collection of stories of river pollution Charles has come into contact with through the work of River Action. The intention now is to bring these stories to the forefront, to drive change on a larger scale.
“Stories are what engage people and influence human behaviour… One day it would be amazing to work with a team of researchers, at universities for example, to incorporate data into the stories too, so we could have total analysis on how different solutions work”.
Although there was no grand vision when River Action was first conceived, a clear mission of bringing the issue of river pollution to be one of national importance has emerged. Whilst the charity will continue to provide advice and hands-on support at a grass-roots level, wielding the PR and reputational risk weaponry where required, Charles believes there is also a greater role to play in influencing policy. In fact, he believes sewage pollution in rivers should be simple to resolve provided there is the political will to do so, given that the water industry depends on governmental licensing and regulations. Agricultural pollution is arguably more complicated, as there is no single regulator. However, Charles is effusive in his belief that the force of public opinion can alter the mindset of the big corporates away from unwavering shareholder primacy. The next steps for River Action are, therefore, around bigger and bolder ambitions. Perhaps even aspiring to become for rivers what Surfers Against Sewage is for the ocean. After decades of environmental protection being defunded, River Action hopes to create sufficient noise and pressure on policy-makers and budget-holders, be that in government or big business, to shift the dial on the rivers crisis.
“It’s not as clear-cut as bad people with evil agendas. Mostly, we’re working with stressed-out individuals in highly demanding jobs trying to balance so many different factors and many of them do want to do the right thing. They’re trying to deal with all sorts of different crises – and that’s what they tell me – and I have sympathy with them, I really do. But I can’t help thinking, isn’t the future of our planet the greatest crisis of all?”
With funding applications and recruitment for a full-time team underway, River Action is preparing to make big ripples in the world of river and planetary health in general. “If we want a healthy planet, we have to have healthy water. To solve the climate crisis, we first need to stop putting more bad into our rivers and then we can start restoring nature… Nature starts with water, it’s as simple as that”.