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Church in Wales Governing Body: Restoring Welsh Waters presentation

26 April 2024

Church in Wales

The chief executive of River Action, James Wallace, delivers a presentation to the Governing Body

The chief executive of River Action, James Wallace, delivers a presentation to the Governing Body

THE Archbishop of Wales, the Most Revd Andrew John, was reportedly castigated by the chief executive of Welsh Water (Dwr Cymru) for “daring [in his presidential address] to mention sewage in a catchment known for factory-farm pollution,” the chief executive of River Action, James Wallace, told the Governing Body in a presentation, Restoring Welsh Waterways, on Thursday of last week.

A statement from the water company in response to the reporting of the address was part of reporters’ news packages on the TV channels S4C and ITV Wales.

“Well, I say thank you for your leadership and visionary foresight and insistence on working together. It is exactly what we need,” Mr Wallace told the Archbishop, calling for facts and “historic truths” to be “used without blame” to achieve a consensus that rivers in Wales were in peril.

“It is absolutely right to gather data and use it for the common good; to politely call out that Dwr Cymru spilled one million hours of untreated sewage on 115,000 occasions into Welsh rivers in 2023; to respect [Professor] Peter Hammond’s observation that approximately 40 wastewater treatment plants in the Cardigan area are operating in breach of their permits, and that sewage is spilled into Cardigan Bay 200 days each year.

“These are facts, and, when used without blame, they can mobilise people across Wales to hold up their hands and heads and work together. Let’s not fight each other and deny these historic truths, but recognise that the problems our rivers face are systemic and complex, with multiple causes, and resolving them is a responsibility of us all.”

There was no shortage of evidence to point the finger at polluters; but now was the time for communities, farmers, water company employees, shoppers, swimmers, workers, and voters to work together as one, he said. “We are nature — everything we do depends on healthy ecosystems, abundant water. Every household, school, business, farm, church requires clean rivers.”

Recent research had shown that 53 cows could emit as much pollution as the untreated sewage from a town of 10,800 people. But, he asked, “How can farmers be expected to have the investment and capacity to sustainably manage manure when they make just 1p in £1 of farm profit, the rest going to corporate intermediaries and retailers? Where many lose money for every litre of milk produced? Where they have to borrow half of the money for building slurry storage?

“The industrial intensification of agriculture, driven by multinational corporations, has come at the cost of farmers’ livelihoods, and, sadly, in many cases, their lives and the lives of our treasured wildlife.”

Mr Wallace spoke of the many other contributing factors, including the 500 tonnes of harmful metals leaking into rivers in Wales from abandoned mines every year, and developers’ insistence on building on floodplains without adequate sewage treatment.

To the Church in Wales, he said: “You are in a unique position: you represent and serve rural and urban communities across the country; you own land in every catchment; you are impartial and truly independent. You have a mission to nurture God’s people and protect God’s earth, so who better to drive forward this essential environmental programme of preparation for a difficult future?”

The associate director of the Bangor Wetlands Group at the University of Bangor, Dr Christian Dunn, said that rivers were being attacked by nitrates and phosphates, viruses from bacteria, and chemicals not routinely measured, such as antibiotics and micro-plastics.

“The water industry is not fit for purpose,” he told the meeting. “It is not what society wants or the environment needs. We need to do better.” Another problem was the construction industry: “We have too much concrete. When it rains, it hits concrete and goes straight into drainage systems which combine with the sewage system. We need a sustainable drainage system, and more soil into the infrastructure, such as permeable paving.”

More than 75 per cent of wetland habitats — bogs, fens, and marshes — had been destroyed, Dr Dunn said. Wetlands were natural sponges, to soak up water: “They need to be reintroduced and created on nothing less than a war footing.”

He described the November summit called by the Archbishop as crucial. “We have to accept that there is individual and social responsibility here. We have got to this point because of society failures over several decades. We need to come together as a society in a neutral and open way for open debate. It may be uncomfortable, but we must address it.”

Hannah Wilkinson (St Davids) said: “Our priority ought to be helping people to see they have moral responsibility. We are answerable to God at the end of the day.

“It is good that the issue has become so important, and organisations are wanting to get involved. When politicians see the level of anger and passion, they are going to want to do something about it.”

The Dean of Newport, the Very Revd Ian Black (Monmouth), reminded the meeting that the first duty of government was the protection of the nation. He appealed to all politicians standing for election this year to make this part of their election campaign: ‘It is about the welfare of all people,” he said.

Nicholas Cooke KC (Monmouth), as president of the provincial court in St Davids, said that he had a particular opportunity to do something as the Church was exempted from planning controls within the curtilage system. He offered help with provincial guidance on solutions such as permeable paving: “I want to flag up the urgency and the need to do something in this area.”

The Dean of St Davids, the Very Revd Dr Sarah Rowland-Jones (St Davids), urged: “Look at how this is symptomatic of the larger problem of short-termism, driven by the need to win the next election and deliver maximum profits to shareholders.”

Her father had been a water engineer for Montgomeryshire. “Even then, he was wringing his hands over the direction of travel,” she said. “It has been coming for a long time, and is part of something bigger.” She emphasised the overriding importance of “getting those with good intentions into the debate”.

Robert Charlton (Swansea & Brecon) offered practical suggestions to everyone with a garden: “Please encourage a natural garden — no pesticides, weedkiller, paving, and certainly no artificial grass.”

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