Reflections from ‘Sacred Rivers and Climate Change’ at London’s Climate Action Week

Sacred Rivers and Climate Change poster (Source:london.gov.uk)

The UK parliament is the first in the world to declare a climate emergency, and in turn the capital city launched its first climate action week (EcoWatch, 2019). The London Climate Action Week had more than 150 events taking place around the city, bringing people together across many sectors to identify solutions and find new measures to adapt to global environmental change. One event that I was fortunate to attend was “Sacred Rivers and Climate Change: Exploring the Thames, Jordan and Indus”. It was organised in partnership with the Museum of London, Thames Estuary Partnership, The Third Pole, India Climate Dialogue and Eco Peace Middle East.

The event was held on the south bank of the river Thames, in the Anglican Southwark Cathedral. The Cathedral shares quite a significant relationship with the river and I was surprised to know about a quite unique ritual where the church celebrates an annual event to carry out the blessing of the River Thames and offers prayers to all those who use its waters. The event kicked off with the screening of the award winning documentary ‘The Living Thames’, featuring Sir David Attenborough. The film presented the ever-changing ecology of the Thames, and efforts put in conservation programmes. The film was introduced by filmmaker, Dorothy Leiper.

The poster of The Living Thames (Source: imdb)

Faith, rivers, and climate share an intimate relationship with each other. This connection was captured in a poetic way by reciting T. S. Eliot’s, The Waste Land, which made us travel back to the 20th century river Thames. The event proceeded with a series of presentations and panel discussions from diverse people and groups working with communities and riverine ecosystems in some of the most crucial parts of the world.

The panel representing London Waterkeeper and Thames Estuary Partnership gave us an overview of the pivotal work the charities undertake with the help of different stakeholders to carry out the sustainable management of the River Thames and to retain the Thames as a living entity and preserve its liquid history. The most important learning for me from this session was the beautiful combination of engineering and activism approaches to the conservation of River Thames.

The event captured the issue of geopolitics and rivers in very intense and appealing ways through the discussions about the river Jordan and Indus and how challenging it is to manage international watercourses in one of the most disputed regions in the world. EcoPeace Middle East, highlighted significant examples of involving religious leadership from the regions of Israel, Palestine and Jordan in river conservation and management on river Jordan which forms an integral part of the three Abrahamic religions.

We then moved towards the Indian sub-continent where one of the most disputed lands and rivers on the planet occurs, and one of the major rivers which forms a part of this conflict is the River Indus. The brief discussion by both of the panellists shed light on the issue of geopolitics in the region, the lack of management of surface water, and the use of international agreements to build more dams. One example is leverage under the Paris Climate Agreement, where Pakistan agreed to keep low emissions by reducing the use of fossil fuels and investing more in dams as a part of “green energy”. However, much has been discussed about the Paris Climate Agreement and the challenges it poses for the world’s rivers. Hermoso (2017) highlighted that rivers could be the biggest losers of the agreement, because dams are inaccurately portrayed as ‘green energy’ despite known impacts on nature and people, and the weak or non-existent legislation that regulate hydropower projects.

A panel discussion and a Q&A session at the event

It was inspiring to hear how environmental advocacy has a major role in the conservation of one of the most prominent rivers, the river Ganga. The presentation from the panellist of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) made me question about the philosophy of how it can be a curse for a river to be sacred and especially in the case of Ganga, where its sacred status has caused permanent damages to the river. The presentation also shed a light on how the governments don’t necessarily make things easy for communities striving hard to protect the rivers and environments they live in.

The major concern about the fate of our sacred rivers in the midst of our climate emergency was reflected by all of the speakers during the concluding session. Each person expressed concern about the shifting precipitation patterns, rising temperatures, and decreasing water quality. However, there is one silver lining in this dark cloud of climate change and that is ‘connection’.

On an individual level, this event helped me be a part of the world I left behind and gave me a sense of deep connection. It taught me to balance both worlds I am currently a part of. The speakers were kind enough to advise me on how as an academic I should be a part of more such discussions and connect more with people in this community where we all share one goal. Sharing more scientific information with organisations, putting social media to good use and networking with people from different backgrounds is certainly what I have picked up from being a part of this event.

I would like to conclude this blog with a few lines from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’, for the readers to reflect and take back.

The river’s tent is broken: the last fingers of leaf

Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind

Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.

Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song.

The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,

Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends

Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed.

Thank you, keep watching @FireLabTweets, and our Fire Lab blog for more reflections and experiences.

References

EcoWatch. (2019). UK Parliament First in World to Declare Climate Emergency. Available at: https://www.ecowatch.com/uk-parliament-climate-emergency-2636090140.html

Hermoso, V. (2017). Freshwater ecosystems could become the biggest losers of the Paris Agreement. Global Change Biology, 23(9), pp.3433-3436.

Sacred Rivers & Climate Change- Exploring the Thames, I. and Southwark Cathedral (2019). Sacred Rivers & Climate Change- Exploring the Thames, Jordan, Indus. London City Hall. Available at: https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/climate-change/london-climate-action-week-events/sacred-rivers-climate-change-exploring-thames-jordan-indus

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