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Li An Phoa and Maarten van der Schaaf:
drinkable rivers

Li An Phoa and Maarten van der Schaaf are behind Drinkable Rivers – a movement bringing people together around a vision of a world in which we can drink from all our rivers; a sign of whole ecosystem balance. Follow them in this encounter as they walk the Thames engaging with local people, school children, farmers, fishermen, politicians, pilgrims and many more, giving attention to hope and helping us remember our connectedness to and through the water.

Made by Jo Barratt with Gemma Mortensen, Iris Andrews and Lily Piachaud.

Music made for New Constellations by Art School Girlfriend.

Lines from The Dry Salvages by TS Eliot read by Guy Hayward

Song lyrics to Old Father Thames (Keeps Rolling Along) read by Guy Hayward


 I do not know much about Gods, but I think that the river is a strong brown God – sullen, untamed, and intractable, patient to some degree, at first recognised as a frontier, useful, untrustworthy as a conveyor of commerce, then only a problem confronting the builder of bridges…

My name is Li An Poa. I’m the founder of Drinkable Rivers. 

This is Maarten van der Schaaf. I heard about Li An, and her walk when she did like a thousand kilometre walk along the Meuse River that starts in France and goes all the way to the Netherlands, and I thought like, hey, this sounds like a very interesting mission. So, I went to see her, and we fell in love! 

So, five years down the line, I followed her initially, but now we are basically together organising these, these walks.  

…the brown god is almost forgotten by the dwellers in the cities. Ever, however implacable, keeping his seasons and rages, destroyer, reminder of what men choose to forget, unhonoured, unpropitiated by worshippers of the machine, but waiting, watching and waiting.

I see myself as a watershed mobiliser. So, putting people into action, by offering them a perspective they love, and a remembering the connectedness we have as a river family. That we are, like, it’s not blood that is connecting us, but water.

So a lot of people say to us like, okay, if you walk the whole length of the Thames, it’s quite far. But so if you go slow, if you go step by step, people can also join and people can join for an hour or… There’s a lot of spontaneity during these walks, and, and that makes it sometimes really magical. 

Along the big rivers in mainland Europe, there’s not a path like this, you cannot walk over people’s land. And here you can, this Thames Path, which is very special actually, I don’t think a lot of English people realise that, and that makes it possible that you can realise, that you can see the river. That you can experience it, that you can see it. And you can see, like, where we are now, look. It’s beautiful. It’s wild. 

My journey started at the Rupert River, it was in up in Northern Subarctic Canada. And the Rupert River flows into the James Bay. And there. I was joining a group of protesters. They were protesting against a megadam for the diversion and damming of the river. So I went there thinking to start as an observant participant, and I had my filter with me, and people said, you can just drink straight from the river here. 

I then took the first sip and that touched me so deeply that a tear rolled down my cheek, feeling this other, other sense of beauty, like, wow, this is what all our ancestors used to do and I totally forgotten it. So it brought me back in memory that this was what was normal. That actually all these kilometres of pipelines, bringing me tap water, that that is quite extraordinary, and that if, understanding, to understand that if all relationships are healthy and in balance, then these qualities like drinkability and beauty and health emerge from that. I suddenly thought like, if we tend to this basis, with our lives, then that abundance of these life-giving qualities can emerge, for everyone, for all life. 

The river is more or less a mirror of the health of our society. We have encountered quite a lot of angry people, and a lot of anger and frustration really, about the state of the rivers, and also pointing or blaming certain parties or, whether it’s Thames Water or whether it’s the farmers or capitalism or whoever it is. And there seems to be a need for a bit more long term perspective. We all know the analysis, we’re very good in that, but we lack a common direction or a common vision to say, hey, this is actually the society we would dream of or what we would love to have, and something we could work on together. 

We like to say that a drinkable river means that every day, everyone has to care for the river. 

It’s simple enough for a child to understand. It’s clear, enough for anyone to be also make accountable, and it speaks to our heart and our imagination.  It is ambitious, and for some now even unthinkable, but we need something very clear to navigate with. And this is, can give us a personal and a shared direction. And yes, it’s also simple, we have all the parameters to look at what is an ecologically healthy river that you, that is safe enough to drink straight from.

As a society, we’re not healthy. We take so many, many medicines altogether, and a part of those medicines, the residues… There’s residues that we cannot take, get out. Our water companies cannot get this out. So it means that you will find this back in the river. Then there’s, of course, the runoff from farms, so pesticides, all that. It used to be much more visible, so people who came out and they were, were more or less black, and mothers would tell their kids, go and have a shower quickly because this is, this is not healthy at all. Now you come out and you don’t see anything really, but the pollution has become micropollution. Microplastics, fertiliser you can’t see. Like we’re measuring all this, this, this stuff that’s in there, the phosphate levels, the nitrate levels, E.coli, for example. 

Actually people are surprised when we, also with the kids, we do these measurements, and part of it is, what’s the colour? And if you look at it like this, you think like, huh, it’s brownish. But if you scoop some water out, most of the time it doesn’t have colour. It doesn’t have smell even, or maybe a bit of a earthy smell, but that’s, like, seems quite natural, so here specifically, it seems that the water companies are not cleaning or spilling in the river. And that’s something we saw also quite a bit in France. Uh, and in France you can still say, okay, we, we somehow understand because they don’t make drinking water from the Meuse River. They take, they make drinking water from groundwater. But from that same river in the Netherlands and in Belgium people drink water, drinking water that is made from water in that river. So there is also this international context and cultural differences. 

A great example from the Meuse, also from a experience point of view, is that if we ask kids, how many fish do you know? In France, kids know many fish. If you ask the same question in Holland, hardly anyone knows a number of fish. But if you ask in France, who of you have been swimming in the Meuse? No one puts his hand up. But in Holland, many kids put their hands up. There’s a lot of differences there. About the relationship that people have culturally with their river. Like in France there have been many, uh, floodings. And so people started to live with their back towards the river. So literally that villages or cities were built. Yeah, like, with the like houses were not with a nice view over the river, like what we’ve seen quite a bit here and in the Upper Thames. Like the river was a threat, the river is dirty, river is not seen as something for tourism, but that starts to change. So, yeah. The cleaner rivers get, and that’s also where, for example, the economy and ecology meet each other, because we’ve been working quite a bit with Mayors in France, and in Netherlands, and in Belgium. And often it’s said, well, when it’s good for the ecology, it’s bad for the economy. Which is, uh, very often just not the case. 

It takes everyone. Because yeah, one spill can mean the end of a quality like a drinkable river that where everybody’s working on so hard. The good thing is though, if you stop with certain practices, the river starts to help us. Because the river has this self cleaning capacity. But we should stop doing certain things and we should start doing other things. Yeah, we are only one of the ‘users’ of the rivers, so to say, but we influence her in a major way, and we should start caring for it much better, so it will care more for us, but also for other species, all life, basically.

Hi, I’m Sean. I’m a Zen Buddhist. I’m a lay person, I know I’m dressed like a nutcase, but this is just to make people go, who’s that guy, so that I might get a conversation going. 

We just encountered a fellow who is a Buddhist and who is doing, walking 200 miles in 10 days. Extraordinary story, right? Like, this guy has no money, like a proper pilgrim, sleeps outside, um… Yeah, so this basically happens all the time. And every morning at nine o’clock where we meet, we know of some people who have registered to come and join, join us. Some people just show up along the way. This guy didn’t know of us half an hour ago, but meets our host last night and she says, hey there’s these people I just waved them out and you should catch them up, and so this guy is joining us. It’s like the river, right? From all kinds of valleys and little corners, there’s brooks and little streams joining the, well, the main stream that we are following, the Thames. And so that main stream is getting bigger. So we like that metaphor as well of the river and the going step by step. 

Today’s my last day in shoes, tomorrow it’s, and probably the day after it’s barefoot, and then for the last however many days it takes, I’ll be in flip flops.

The walk has a momentum, right? So it creates attraction for people to join every day, or to join an event, or join a citizen science. And then when you’re done, suddenly, we have a very unique perspective, both of the landscape, how the river evolved, we saw all the different faces of the river from source to sea, all the different stories of the local people who hosted us and the discoveries we do wherever we are. So very unique. 

Yesterday, someone who had been measuring for 30 or more years in the river as a profession, he said, it’s a small river, and I thought, ah, it’s now interesting that he says that because indeed, you might think of some grandeur river, right? And I love that the banks are still very much with these beautiful trees, not everywhere, but in many places it’s very wooded.  It’s of course I make also a deep connection through the stories of the people. And uh, how he created all the places. So, yeah, and those places have become famous too. 

High in the hills, down in the dales, happy and fancy free. Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, down to the mighty sea. What does he know? What does he care? Nothing for you or me. Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, down to the mighty sea. 

I really feel that, that a lot of people we’ve met have a relationship with the Thames. And I think that’s where it starts. We like to say experience, love, care. So if you can experience the Thames, if you can swim in it, if you go fishing, go when you’re a child with your grandfather or, then you build a relationship with the Thames. And then, you start to love the Thames and then you want to care for it. We really see a lot of love, but a little bit less care for the Thames.

If you start with something you love, it will, it will be less effort.  It will become an adventure for you to explore how to find out. And for me, it is being outside walking and connecting with people. And so I started with these ingredients and that’s how this walking way of life and way of teaching and way of mobilising came into being. And so to then set up a baseline study of what is the water quality and the health of the river right now, I thought that would be a moment to send out an invitation and to let people, other people experience their river, deepen their understanding, grow their love, and therefore have a basis for caring for their river. And that’s how, for instance, the citizen science started to develop.  

We would love that an action community emerges from the walk. We don’t know yet who that will be and how that will be. But that sharedness, the value of the clarity of a drinkable river, perhaps connects them. And whether it’s walkers, someone now is a young hydrologist from the Netherlands, she’s joining, spontaneously, she will meet new people… So it could be anyone taking initiative on one thing, for instance, now along the Thames, we see how there are many rowers and canoers and anglers and wild swimmers and walkers, and they all have the same love for the river, for different reasons, and so if you connect that much more, then there can be such a positive and constructive force coming out of that, that we hardly can understand right now that we humans have that ability.

A walk like this gives hope. Working with a wide, great variety of local initiatives, local NGOs, projects. Also in municipalities, people who are doing the right thing or want to do the right thing, more and more. I think you must be hopeful about that. As we know from the news industry, I think, uh, the news is focused too often on only the analysis of the problem and not so much on all the great initiatives for, that are there that work towards a solution. And I think if we give much more attention to that, uh, there is reason to be hopeful. And that’s also has been a personal reason for me to engage more with this. Because I want to give attention to that hope. 

We come now together with a clear proposal, and saying, this is what we want, and this can suspend politics, right? We want a world that has these life giving qualities for all life, a drinkable river, and then we, we ask science – okay, science, do the research, what kind of inventions do we need, what innovations, what businesses, what entrepreneurship can we then encourage and nurture and foster and grow?

The way we eat, the way we grow our food, the way we dress, the way we wash ourselves and our clothes and our houses, all of that ultimately ends up in the river. You are already connected. You already have an influence, and now it’s more a question whether you will ponder also yourself like, am I contributing to these life giving qualities? Or not? Am I helping the drinkable river, or not? But start where your heart sings. If it’s gardening, if it’s cooking, if it’s travelling, look at what ways could help the drinkable rivers in the world more. Knowing that you’re not only helping the rivers, but with the rivers, all life. And all life to come.

…He never seems to worry. Doesn’t care for fortune’s fame. I’ve lost this bit. He never seems to hurry, but he gets just, he gets there just the same. Kingdoms may come, kingdoms may go, whatever the end may be. Old Father Thames keeps rolling along, down to the mighty sea. Okay, there’s another bit, but I’ll do that later.

We’re really rising here. This is the first time, it feels like now as if we are walking a bit in the mountains. And here is actually the first time that we feel it’s a, like a river valley, right? Most, that’s an advantage of walking along rivers, normally it’s just flat, and as a Dutchman, I’m used to that.