The Green Planet: The battle for Britain’s sewage-struck waterways hits the big time

Analysis: Sir David Attenborough’s great appreciation of nature is an antidote to the deplorable state of environmental leadership in the UK

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Sunday 16 January 2022 21:32
The Green Planet | Official Trailer | New Attenborough Series

Sir David Attenborough is rowing a small boat along a rare and beautiful waterway – an English chalk stream.

As he lowers a subaquatic camera into the water and addresses the audience to celebrate the fragile and beautiful flora in this precious ecosystem, the 95-year-old appears to have somehow grown younger.

He exudes a contagious passion as he points to the flowers of the water crowfoot, describing its annual blooming as “one of the loveliest natural spectacles of the early English summer”.

But why, out of every possible location on Earth – and The Green Planet series has no limits – is this serene scene of significance?

Well, to use the parlance of the programme: this is a battleground.

The Green Planet team is wading in to bat for the future of Britain’s polluted waterways.

England’s rivers are among the worst in Europe – our globally rare chalk streams reduced to little more than gutters for the poisonous sewage our water companies are not compelled to dispose of properly.

The resultant "chemical cocktail" swirling through the waters is a “risk to public health”, MPs warned just last week.

Sir David Attenborough in an English chalk stream. Against the current, water crowfoot sends stiffer flower-bearing stems up into the air to attract pollinators

Every freshwater body in England currently fails chemical standards and only 16 per cent are classed as being “in good ecological health”, compared to 53 per cent on average across the EU.

In November, water company figures revealed sewage discharges into the UK’s rivers and beaches had soared by 88 per cent in a year.

But despite the outrage, last year the government voted down efforts seeking more severe action against pumping raw sewage into rivers and seas, and instead passed a weaker amendment to the Environment Bill to ensure firms “secure a progressive reduction in the adverse impacts of sewage discharges” from storm overflows.

This year, the environment couldn’t be lower on the government’s agenda:

Boris Johnson’s administration continues to lurch from crisis to scandal, and as a result, the necessary leadership and policymaking required to address the climate and environment crises is failing to emerge.

It is against this appalling backdrop that The Green Planet now airs. Its marriage of technological wizardry with electrifying science unleashes a savage beauty that is a sorely needed reminder of our species’ extraordinary capabilities.

Blossom-pink clouds of underwater plants billow and pulsate in clear waters in Colombia. Timelapse photography of a terrifying giant waterlily amplifies its struggle for light into psychedelic jiggling Bagpuss madness as it swings a spiky frond around like a wrecking ball before unfurling in its vast majesty.

The programme is not only a divine antidote to the squalor of public life, but also a bitter reminder of what is, right now, being annihilated as our attention is drawn to the contemptibles clinging to office and their enduring viciousness.

The Green Planet is on BBC One

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