Rebuilding Our Relationship With Urban Rivers With Dr. Cecilia Medupin

Rivers have played a monumental role in determining where people live. Their importance in providing water, transportation and a raft of other ecosystem services has meant that even today most of the world’s largest cities are situated close to a major source of freshwater, from Sydney to Delhi, Quebec to Karachi.

Yet despite their role in our history, urban rivers today are often facing increasing levels of pollution as a result of human activity. As well as often being a huge tourist drawcard, and an ongoing resource for fishers, joggers and portable BBQ toters, freshwater ecosystems carry a disproportionate number of aquatic species, which makes this trend increasingly worrying.

After meeting at last year’s British Ecological Society Annual Meeting, I got in touch with Dr. Cecilia Medupin, a freshwater ecologist at the University of Manchester. Cecilia works to increase peoples understanding of rivers, including the project Our Rivers, Our City. I asked Cecilia abut our connection with rivers, the challenges they face, and how to inspire research and change in urban rivers.

Sam Perrin (SP): Rivers play such a historically important role in where we live. I mean, they’re the reasons a lot of human settlements have been based where they are. Have we lost that connection to them somehow?

Dr. Cecilia Medupin, University of Manchester (CM): I think it depends. In developing countries, most people who live around waterbodies make constant use of them. For example, we have the farmers or fishermen, people who use it for other domestic purposes. In the more developed nations, some water bodies serve as tourist attractions, people still walk their dogs near water bodies, people jog or go for walks or just to get some fresh air. Collectively, we have industries that are situated near rivers or lakes and they discharge effluent into flowing waters. Sometimes, excessive use of the rivers including waste disposal and tourists has been a major challenge. For example, following the lockdown, we have seen that some waterbodies could be clearer as reported of the Ganges river in India.

Losing connections to these waterbodies is something we all have to struggle with – especially with increasing urbanisation, development and increasing pollution in some parts of the world. River flow is continuously obstructed by development, and increasingly they are polluted as a result of human activities.

In order not to lose the connection entirely, there are standard regulations that try to keep the water safe for all. There are standards that need to be met from the regulatory perspective, there is the aspect of river monitoring and assessment, there are continuous improvement projects through catchment partnership groups across the continent. There are efforts, especially in the UK, to ensure that everyone complies with standard regulations in the EU directives and that people are informed too.

SP: Can we turn people around, reform that connection?

CM: Yes, there are many ways to reform the connection. We have people who study rivers, or aspects of them, whether out in the field or in the research laboratories. In order to bring people in and make them interested, we need to communicate the research in ways that are clear and understood by non-technical people. This can come in the form of public engagement activities or they could be included as part of the research. Citizen science initiatives like this can encourage engagement. For example, I am aware that Earthwatch Institute does a lot of work on river and citizen engagement, so does the Mersey Rivers Trust. There is a new project called “Our Rivers, Our City” in Greater Manchester that aims to re-build our connection with rivers in the city.

Personally, I have coordinated a good number of public engagement activities to promote river ecology through my theme “What’s in your river?”. We communicate to diverse groups of people, including plenty of 16-18 year olds, the fact that there is life below the water’s surface, including macroinvertebrates. I do this through the British Ecological Society (BES) summer school, to younger children in science festivals and museums, and to older adults in the UK and abroad. You’ll be surprised at the feedback you will receive when you passionately share your knowledge with people. Another way to communicate connections is through the delivery of lectures and field courses. By making my field sessions interesting, I encourage my students to take an interest in their rivers and river organisms with the hope to sustain future river connections. The strategy for re-connection could be enhanced if we understand the people who are in our local communities, and the groups we seek to address and to try and engage them accordingly.

SP: You mentioned river pollution before. We often have very polluted city rivers. Why has that become the status quo?

CM: Well, the lockdown (Covid-19) has revealed that polluted city rivers may not necessarily be a status quo. During the lockdown, almost all major human activities were halted by the pandemic. Following the lockdown, some scientific reports showed some rivers and canals became clearer and cleaner. For example, in some parts of India (i.e. the Ganges river) and the Venice canal which welcome a lot of tourists all year round showed positive changes during the lockdown.

We all know that human population is increasing, mostly in urban areas. This also implies that water resources’ use is increasing, our personal, domestic needs have also increased. Ultimately, these increases require corresponding increase to the carrying capacity of wastewater treatment infrastructure and enforcement of standard regulation/regulatory instruments to the abstraction of water and discharge of effluent.

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The Ganges river has been showing signs of improved health, as the COVID-19 enforced lockdown has prevented the usual levels of human use (Image Credit: Naka Kei)

In Europe, standards are maintained through European Directives and which are ratified by EU Member States. So every country within the European Union that is a signatory to that Directive now translates the directives into their own standards for measurement, into their own regulations. For example, we have the Water Framework Directive (WFD) which applies to surface water quality in Europe and helps to ensure that water quality standard across Europe is uniform. This WFD standard mandates all water quality to achieve “Good Ecological Status”. However, there are challenges to achieving this status especially for urban rivers. Due to the enforcement of this (and other freshwater-related standards) Europe, nutrients such as phosphate concentrations have reduced in some parts of the continent, while still high in other locations.

Other continents and some developing countries might have a challenge of a unified regulatory standard, limited water quality data and trained man-power. Therefore, these challenges coupled with increasing urbanisation will remain long term in most parts of the world.

It is important however, to state that effective management, collaboration between water managers and regulators, researchers, citizens are maintained and sustained. Also, river basin partnership groups should be continuously informed as necessary on the state of our water bodies/infrastructure for the purpose of information, safety and precaution. Insufficient, open information could mislead the public as shown by a recent news report published in the UK edition of the Guardian newspaper. The news stated that UK water firms (the water firms manage the water infrastructure) discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019. While this news was disheartening, it raises a lot of questions on the monitoring of water bodies, openness and access to actual data and of environmental regulation.

SP: How open is the waste treatment industry with those figures?

CM: There are not very open. They are private companies and not a public organisation. Private companies would like to protect their private information.

I’ve had experience of seeking data from a water company and was disappointed that I never got a detailed response. I needed some information on combined sewer overflows (CSOs) as part of my doctoral research. While I was clearly informed that I could not access nor sample the CSOs for safety reasons, I was not given the data I needed from them. The environmental regulators who could have provided me with such data under the Freedom of Information Act (2000) and right of access, did not hold this data either. Following a lot of contact via email, phone calls, I was eventually provided with discharge simulations obtained on the CSOs. This information was grossly inadequate for effective interpretation on the river’s quality and created a gap on the broad catchment assessment carried out over a three-year duration. For this reason, I was unable to report on the impact of CSOs on the urban river, the restricted information limited the recommendations that could have arisen from my research to promote further work.

SP: Could there be a realisation that waterbodies can be cleaner after what we’ve seen over the last few months?

CM: Oh yes and it could. The onus is on the people who implement water standards to keep enforcing it, and for those who implement the standards to keep on complying with regulatory standards. This is not easy, but we can keep trying. Most importantly, I think we all have a collective responsibility to ensure the protection and safety of our rivers including the river biodiversity. By deliberately thinking about what we do, how we do it, we can consciously start correcting lifestyles that pollute our rivers.

SP: Is there value in encouraging more ecologists and hydrologists to go into city planning, local government?

CM: It is a good idea. We’re heading towards a future where environmental challenges to our rivers, our lakes can only be resolved through broader and effective interactions of disciplines and people. This way, we would make informed decisions and provide solutions that are stronger and more sustainable for all.

SP: Should we be educating students about the economic realities of conservation from an earlier age?

Oh yes! As the saying goes. the young shall grow…

If today’s students know more about the economic realities of river conservation, fast forward that knowledge in 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, we would have massive change in people’s mind sets, we would have positive, informed revolution of people who will inform effective management, implement strategic decision processes and improve the sustainability of our rivers.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. You can read more about Sam’s research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

Title Image Credit: Cecilia Medupin, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped

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