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The United Kingdom’s broken cultural relationship with its rivers: A conversation with Paul Powlesland

20 June 2023

Nicolás Salazar Sutil: What is the root cause of the UK sewage crisis in your opinion? 

Paul Powlesland: Fundamentally, the ideology that the river is not alive; that it is something to be merely extracted from or dumped into.

NSS: How have minorities living along the River Roding been affected by the sewage crisis? 

PP: Discrimination sometimes manifests itself in the idea that minorities don’t deserve nature and nature’s culture. Lack of access to nature is very noticeable in our river, for instance due to infrastructure. The River Roding area is disconnected. You simply can’t get across. A major motorway was built along the river in the 1980s, which was one of the last motorways to cut through London. The government at the time thought they could simply expropriate the river from the local community. This of course affects cultural practices. People cannot bathe, fish or play. River destruction is a major cultural loss.

NSS: Could you tell us what communities and groups of people live along the Roding Catchment?

PP: I’ve been calling the Roding ‘the most religiously diverse river in the country’. In the lower catchment, there are large populations of almost every major religion. A lot of people who live along the stretch between Ilford and Barking, and all the way down to Creekmouth, where the Roding meets the Thames, are religious minorities. There are a lot of Hindus and Muslims, Orthodox Christians, West African Christians, Jewish people. In Barking, there is a Sikh temple right next to the river embankment. And yet, many local people don’t even know about the river. This summer we will organize a multi-faith ceremony of river veneration. As many local religious groups as possible will be invited to conduct prayers. We’ve had an exhibition called River Roding: Sacred River, based on the objects of veneration we have found when doing litter clean-ups.

NSS: Why do you think there is a cultural disconnect with the river?  

PP: Many people live only a few hundred metres from the River Roding, but they’ve never been there. Why would you? Even when you get there, the river is full of rubbish and sewage. And that’s a terrible injustice, isn’t it, to be cut off from your birth right.

NSS: How do you imagine the future of the River Roding? 

PP: As a beautiful place where people can swim, picnic, pray. A river full of biodiversity and no pollution. In the short term, I can give you a list that would help overcome the United Kingdom’s sewage crisis. There should be a deposit return scheme and a general regulation by statute to help reduce unnecessary packaging. There should be pollutant tax principles in place. To avoid bad urban planning, an automatic ‘No planning within 50 metres of the river’ rule should be introduced. There should be laws to avoid intensive farming near rivers to reduce agricultural run-off. Until water companies update their sewage system, there should be no sewage bills or else, only in exceptional circumstances. Utility companies should not be allowed to earn dividends, and custodial fines should be introduced for water company executives. No road run-off should be allowed to reach a river untreated. Tree planting programmes all along the river should be instituted. And culture. We need a culture where people respect and spend quality time with our rivers.

We are grateful to members of the River Roding Trust for their collaboration in the production of this chapter.

Photo: Photographs of minority religious artefacts found by members and supporters of the River Roding Trust in the process of cleaning up the banks of the River Roding, taken on its banks, are exhibited at the moorings in Barking in April 2021. Credit: Andrew John Brown.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Paul Powlesland

Nicolás Salazar Sutil

Commissioning Editor

Minority Rights Group