Two weeks ago WWF called and asked if I would get them some new pictures of drying chalk-streams. They wanted to update the campaign we started several years ago, “Rivers on the Edge”. The pressure exerted by people on our natural resources is well illustrated in the quiet and mostly ignored death of a chalk-stream. How we build our world to allow room for nature and people could not be more relevant. But memories are so short: if it’s raining outside there’s no point talking about a drought or drying rivers, just as if it’s not raining there’s no point in talking about upland land-management and flooding! Photographs are sometimes all you have the keep the argument alive. Here’s a link to the album of images.
I have in my bookcase a 1946 series of OS maps that show the open countryside, small market towns and blue ribbons of chalk-rivers around north and north-west London: rivers that were once famous for their trout fishing and wildlife. Now the landscape is very different: Hatfield, Stevenage, St Albans, Welwyn Garden City have grown like spots of mould on jam, merging at the edges to become one unbroken belt of semi-rural suburbia. The chalk-streams that thread through them are hardly there anymore. Almost everywhere I stopped on my Dante-esque tour trying to photograph an absence (of a river) the most palpably present thing was a pumping station. You wouldn’t notice them till you start looking. When you do they are everywhere: eyeless brick huts, with bolted iron gates and a water company sign warding off trespassers … which is ironic given how the tendrils beneath each apparently innocuous building are trespassing way beyond their surface boundaries.
No-one realised in the 1940s and 50s, when these pumping licences were issued that the chalk aquifers were not infinite. Nor quite how far and how fast the population of south-east England would grow. People have to live and their water has to come from somewhere. Chalk aquifer water is pure and cheap …. so long as you don’t count the cost illustrated in the photographs I took.
A few years ago when making a short film about these drying rivers for WWF, I asked everyone I could about what their local river meant to them and how they would feel if it dried up because of public water-supply abstraction. Universally the thought was an abhorrence. Rivers are cathartic and life-giving, places to relax and unwind and enjoy some peace and quiet or to play with the kids or the dog. Not around the Home Counties they’re not. To be clear: without abstraction chalks-streams like the Chess, Beane and Mimram would not dry up for mile after unbroken mile … even in a drought. They are not winterbornes, except in their very headwaters.
The only way out of this singularly silent natural disaster is to count the cost to nature of the water we take so cheaply from the ground. The government and OFWAT must allow / compel water-companies to develop alternative sources and we must stop using water without a thought for where it comes from.