Britain’s headlines aren’t unfamiliar with the sewage crisis overwhelming its waterways. It’s clear we need to act urgently before yet another river is declared ‘ecologically dead’ due to sewage spillages, yet action is the last thing that’s being taken.
It’s not that we’re apathetic to the situation – activist groups and politicians are attempting to make a vocal stand against the blatant disregard water companies have for the environment. Surfers Against Sewage is just one of the campaign groups asking the policies around storm overflows.
Britain’s sewage system is designed to allow household greywater and wastewater to occasionally discharge into the sea and rivers, the operational word being ‘occasionally’. Both rainwater and wastewater is carried through the same pipes, so periods of heavy and constant rain can overwhelm the system and risk domestic flooding in settlements.
Water companies are therefore allowed to let sewage run into waterways, though the Environment Agency does expect them to track the overflows so they can be regulated.
Obscene profits and PR stunts
An analysis by the Financial Times revealed that shareholders of UK water companies earned £1.4bn in dividends in 2022, £540mn higher than the previous year. As the report explains, this is despite public outrage over the continuous sewage dumping and the imposition of higher customer bills to clean up the resultant ecological devastation to coastlines and watercourses.
Admittedly, a handful of chief executives of these water companies, including Yorkshire Water’s Nicola Shaw, have rejected their bonuses after the backlash. It might seem like a noble thing to do, but let’s not forget that these companies have been raking it in for decades at the expense of the public and the environment.
Yorkshire Water was revealed to be one of the worst polluters in the UK and was the reason three of Yorkshire’s rivers, including the Aire, Calder and the Ouse were in the top 10 worst rivers with raw sewage discharge list curated by campaign group Top of the Poops.
It found that the company contributed to over 50,000 sewage overflows last year, collectively these lasted for 231,873 hours – equating to almost 27 years – and the only response it has scraped together is an apology and hollow promises to invest £180mn in developing its infrastructure. Considering the eye-watering fines it has had to shell out numerous times before, rejection of bonuses may seem a pitiful PR stunt.
Although these water companies have pledged to restructure their obsolete infrastructure, it’s been promised with the threat of increased costs to the ordinary customer and decades of time.
Local politicians urge action to defend Sheffield’s rivers
It would be unfair to deflect all the blame to profit-hungry corporations. A few of our MPs are very happy to sit back and twiddle their thumbs while trying desperately to not be distracted by the stench of their careless politics tainting our rivers and beaches. But a select few are engaged in holding both the government and water companies to account.
Sheffield City councillor Minesh Parekh has attacked the nonchalant attitude of the government over the dumping of sewage, declaring that “it’s time to dump the Tories instead”.
Raw sewage entered Sheffield’s 5 rivers 2,909 times last year, which is devastating for a city built on and named after these river channels. Sheffield’s largest river, the River Don, alone was polluted 2,000 times with sewage in the past year.
The Don, which has only just recently made an ecological recovery after decades of chemical pollution by the city’s industrial past turned the waters inhabitable, saw salmon return to the area for the first time in 200 years thanks to a project by the Don Catchment Rivers Trust. But the recent statistics have environmentalists and activists worried.
Again the Conservatives vote against preventing sewage dumping
In April this year, the Labour party tried to introduce a water quality (sewage discharge) bill that would subject water companies to tighter regulations as well as handing out automatic fines after each sewage overflow.
Some 265 Conservative MPs chose to vote against the bill, drawing criticism and further stoking public fury over the matter. Secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, Therese Coffey said in a statement that the government has its own plans to deal with regulating water companies, but that too has been under attack.
“I think it’s really disappointing, particularly when we know the quantity of sewage that’s flowing into our rivers and waterways and beaches, almost on a daily basis,” says councillor Parekh.
“For Tory politicians voting against that bill, it’s a dereliction of duty, a dereliction of responsibility to protect the social community that they represent.”
He also said privatisation was another key reason the water companies have been able to cause so much damage:
“I think as soon as people are allowed to make profit from something as fundamental to human life as water, no good is going to come of that, and I think it just shows that we shouldn’t be running water as a for-profit service.”
Vandalism of a precious resource
Britain’s sewage issue isn’t localised here and there and neither can it be attributed to a single company; it’s an issue that just screams legislative change is long overdue, but with the leadership themselves failing to agree on the legislation, the situation seems dire.
It’s uncertain which way things will pan out, but with only 16% of the country’s waterways still in their natural state, it’s high time tangible action took place.
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