World Health Day is an opportunity to focus worldwide attention on important aspects of global health –from mental health, maternal and child care, and climate change. The World Health Organisation (WHO) use the tagline “Let’s build a fairer, healthier world for everyone,” making a public commitment to facilitating equal opportunities for humans, yet it is not so clear that this transcends to everything. Friends of the River Medway believe that World Health Day serves as a reminder of the importance of the health of all beings, not just humans.
The health of rivers is suffering globally and the UK is no exception. Rivers have been redirected, physically modified, dammed and polluted. Aquifers have been pumped almost dry with little consideration for the generations to come. Only 14% of rivers in England are classified as having a “Good” ecological status according to the World Framework Directive (WFD), with a “Good” river being as close to its natural state as possible. According to the State of Nature 2019 report, 41% of the UK species studied have declined since 1970. It is clear that something needs to change. Not only do we need to restore and rejuvenate rivers, so that they can continue to serve as a wonderful habitat for unique and rare species, but we also have to repair our relationship with rivers and indeed the natural world.
The first step is recognising that our wellbeing springs from these sources of life. Though we want to move away from the anthropocentric desire to relate everything back to the welfare of humans, the health of rivers is directly linked with the health of people. We depend on them for water — the very thing that keeps us alive — not only for drinking, but for our agriculture too. Research shows that stress levels are lowered even when seeing images of waterways, let alone being in actual contact with them, and a recent study reveals that the closer people live to the English coast, the healthier they are (https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/impact-sea-lakes-rivers-peoples-health).
Yet despite the countless ways in which nature provides greater wellbeing – both physically and mentally – our connection to the outside world has largely been severed due to the disconnect of modern living. We no longer have to go to a waterway to collect our water, nor use rivers to bathe, for it is quite literally ‘on tap’. For most of us, our relationship to nature is based on going on walks, where we are still only an observer. We are not so entangled with the natural processes and therefore do not have the understanding of just how much nature provides.
So, what is the second step? Strengthening and deepening our connection. Lockdown has provided people with the opportunity to slow down and spend more time outside, or otherwise face serious cabin fever. This phenomenon has sprung forth what seems to be universally felt as a renewed appreciation for nature, meaning it is the perfect time to further delve into that relationship. By connecting more deeply to nature, we are able to gain insight into all that she gives, and thus are more sensitive to the processes that contribute to her pollution and destruction.
It is for this reason that on World Health Day we are championing awareness for the importance of river health and – ultimately – the recognition that the wellbeing of rivers truly equates to the wellbeing of all life on earth.
Written by Zofia Page