Poo In Our Rivers

View of outfall pipes looking towards Foreness Point, Broadstairs
Outfall Pipes towards Foreness Point – photo by David Anstiss; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0

Untreated Sewage Discharged Into Rivers and Coastal Water

Why are water companies in England using the excuse of heavy rain to discharge poo into water courses? This has happened some 400,000 times in the past year, according to the Environment Agency. So we are now at a crisis point, and it’s time for better decision-making about water. 

The House of Lords has just voted through an amendment to the Environment Bill currently going through parliament to place a legal duty on water companies to “take all reasonable steps” to prevent sewage discharges. It will be interesting to see how the debate goes when this returns to the House of Commons.

Political viewpoints span from the Green-Left (take water utilities back into public ownership) to the pro-investor viewpoints which privatised water in the first place (in 1989, heyday of Margaret Thatcher) on the rationale that only more private investment could bring in the money needed to fix England’s aged sewage system. 

Victorian Cost-Cutting the Cause

What is wrong with the sewerage system in the British Isles, is that the Victorian engineers linked rainwater drainage to household sewage in the same pipes. 

This obviously saved much labour and materials: in the fast-growing industrial cities, the process of laying one set of pipes was more economical. The same generation of water engineers used a different scheme where it was possible and necessary to make two systems, when they were laying out a new city.

In the city of Durban, for instance, they designed a system where the “foul water” from households headed to the local sewage works, whereas the storm water drained in large diameter pipes directly out to sea – no mixing, or poo would frequently surge up from the road drains during the violent sub-tropical storms. 

The Cost Of an Upgrade

There is some debate about how much it would cost to now upgrade the British system. The Environment Minister has said between £150 and £660bn, which some claim is just a quick extrapolation of the cost of the new Thames sewage plant to the whole population. The Angling Trust says upgrades could be done for £3.9bn – £62.7bn, with an impact on water bills of some £19 – £58 each year for an average household bill. 

What is the view of the water companies?

“After decades of underinvestment by successive governments water quality was poor, rivers were polluted, and our beaches were badly affected by sewage. Quite simply, the water industry was not high up the list of priorities for Ministers when its funding came out of the same pot as the money for schools, hospitals and police officers.

But since privatisation, investment of nearly £160 billion has seen a strong and steady improvement in the industry, with customers now enjoying access to world-class drinking water. In addition, leakage is down by a third since the mid-1990s, two thirds of beaches are now classed as excellent compared with less than a third 25 years ago, and wildlife has returned to rivers that had been biologically dead since the Industrial Revolution.”


Companies’ Use Of Receipts

My recent article on the pollution by Southern Water revealed that 23p of the £1.12 per day a household pays for water, goes to the shareholders, totalling some £57bn paid out to investors by the nine Water Companies in England since privatisation. Some have argued that this amount would have been better spent in upgrading infrastructure. 

In Scotland and Wales water is managed by public not-for-profit companies.  In Scotland, the average household bill for water is £263 (2018–19), £42 lower than the English household average, and they have invested some £232 per household annually since 2002, a full 36% more per household than in England, and reduced leakages by 55%. 

The Record Of Political Parties

The track record of the political parties on water policy runs through Early Day motions and manifestos. Back in 1989, on the cusp of water privatisation, it was the LibDems who tabled an Early Day motion (EDM132), focused on the water shortage in Kent and Sussex, which was then suffering from a water shortage, with hosepipe bans in force. “Government has failed to invest adequately in maintenance of supply pipes and reservoirs.”

There is still a prediction that the South East will become short of water in coming decades, especially with population growth.

By 1996, Labour was concerned about water company profits in EDM 434 “Water thicker than blood”. In 2018, there was a campaign called “We own it” to support an EDM1761, proposed by Labour MPs and the Green MP Caroline Lucas, with a petition gathering signatures. In 2019, water was in the Labour party manifesto, as Luke Pollard stated on 18 July:

The next Labour government will cut customer bills and invest more in climate change mitigation and flood prevention. We will do that by bringing water companies into public ownership and re-investing profits in lower bills and better infrastructure.

This was derided by other parties on the grounds that the cost of compensating shareholders is colossal and there are more urgent needs for the fiscus. (Incidentally, in earlier generations, faced with a need for upgrading infrastructure, the  government just took over the turnpike roads without any compensation for the owners who had spent money to improve them: one of my ancestors went to his grave still complaining about this.)

But of course most governments would not consider such a drastic attack on shareholder capital these days. 

Some Municipalities Have Taken Their Water Into Public Ownership

There are increasing examples of water utilities which had been privatised being taken back into public ownership. In fact some 235 cities have done so since 2000.

This report gives the example of Paris which did so in 2010, after much public consultation to much customer satisfaction. The website of Eau de Paris proclaims;

“The Paris Observatory of Water (OPE) is an instance of participative democracy, created by the City of Paris. It brings together representatives of users, elected officials of the City, institutional actors, representatives of social landlords, trustees, academics, researchers and various experts. It is a place of information, consultation and debate.” 

Arguments for local ownership of water, at municipal level, is that water infrastructure is about so much more than just getting water to households and taking their waste-water away at the lowest cost. The water company might operate a “solidarity fund” to ensure the poorest households receive water at prices they can afford.

It may also provide drinking fountains and more public toilets. It can include better management of flood areas, for instance by using nature to control run-offs from storms, with more “green” and “blue” spaces. 

Growing Awareness In England

In England, there is indeed growing awareness of the need for local government to take action on flood water threats and on the pollution of water courses. Indeed, in the Stour catchment area of Kent, new housing developments are postponed because the eutrophication evident at Stodmarsh shows that the Stour water course is being overwhelmed by pollutants, some of which is from the excessive poo burden of new housing.

The remedy for this is to legislate that developers must take all actions to ensure that new housing plans do not put excessive strain on the sewerage system. 

But there are still plenty of new-builds going on in Kent over flood plains, designed with concrete pillars to elevate the structure above the water. As a consequence the cars that are parked underneath at ground level will just … swim away in a flood. (Do the new residents realise that risk?).

A Chinese Solution

A contrast to this appeared on the news the other day – a picture of a shiny new Chinese city, with parks designed around the skyscrapers, as sponges to soak up the flood-waters. We ought to demand that our local governments take more action like that, as a spokesperson from Rivers Trust put it,

“We know that nature-based solutions are more difficult to cost, but in some places can be cheaper. They also bring multiple benefits – they help nature’s recovery, can provide new green and blue spaces, and take up, rather than omit, carbon.”

Yet another strategy is to increase public awareness about what individual households can do. Two years ago, the Royal Horticultural Society ran a campaign on “Greening Grey Britain” which was to urge people against the trend of concreting over their front gardens for parking spaces.

This was not only to make more space for gardening, but also because concrete increases storm run-off and contributes to heat traps in urban streets during the hotter months. 

What More Can We Do?

Households could receive incentives to use most of the rainwater from their gutters, either in their gardens or as “grey water” to flush their toilets. In Brussels large townhouses, of the period when Belgian engineers were designing the municipal sewerage system, are fitted with pipes, pump and a roof tank that recycles the rainwater to the toilets (and washing machine), thus saving the public system from excessive rainwater, and the mixing of sewage and stormwater that causes pollution in England. In drought-prone cities, such as some suburbs in Cape Town, it becomes almost unusual not to recycle grey water for toilet flush, and shower water for the garden. 

Could we do more in England, in Kent specifically, to stop excessive rainwater even reaching sewage works? For a start there should be firm planning law on the design of new houses to ensure recycling of grey water and use of rainwater.

For older properties, regrettably the cost of a system such as the Belgian one, complete with pump, would be too expensive to retro-fit, about £7,000, and this at a time when many property-owners are becoming aware of the need to budget also for heat pumps for household central heating. 

Install Good Butts!

However, there could be bill reductions for households that do collect rainwater in water butts, and use that water in the garden or washing machine. Such a system needs to be well designed (not like the example in Sandwich – see Jane Sheridan’s article on how the gutters from several roof tops in their Sandwich property were all directed to the few butts in their yard, which would then flood during storms!)

Maybe water butts should just be provided free in the poorer parts of town. There should also be rate reductions for those that keep their front garden green, not concreted over, as they are contributing more to carbon (and heat) reduction. Rainwater is a precious resource that should not be used only to wash poo down the pipes.

I fancy a new fashion for colourful water butts and watering cans, with leading local personalities like Joanna Lumley (not Boris Johnson pointing a carrot, please) showing how to make better use of rainwater at home.