Nationalise water to stop sewage dumping

Submitted by AWL on 1 December, 2021 - 9:52 Author: Wilson Gibbons
Sewage into water

Water companies in the England and Wales have been found to be illegally dumping raw sewage directly into Britain’s waterways and seas at staggering rates. An investigation from the Environment Agency (EA) found that in 2020 alone water companies had discharged sewage into rivers more than 400,000 times, for a total of more than three million hours.

Companies are legally allowed to discharge raw sewage this way but only in exceptional situations where it would otherwise threaten to overwhelm the sewer system, such as after prolonged periods of rain. Then discharging allows fluid to move through the system rapidly and avoid backing-up which leads to flooding and sewage leaking into populated areas. However, activists and the Environment Agency have shown that overflow discharge has been frequent year-round, including in long dry summer spells.

Probably the findings massively under-report the level of sewage being dumped. Spills are monitored through companies self-reporting. Southern Water was recently fined £90 million for repeatedly dumping raw sewage along the UK’s southern coast whilst fudging the numbers given to the EA. Thames Water have been accused of failing to report up to 95% of their discharges, even though it says the company says it regards all untreated sewage discharges of untreated sewage as unacceptable.

The water companies have pointed the finger at Britain’s creaking infrastructure, inherited from the Victorians, but in doing so they have inadvertently given the game away. Undoubtedly the system might be due an upgrade, but the chief block to investment in infrastructure has been the rampant profiteering of the directors and shareholders of England’s nine main regional water companies since privatisation in 1989, and public spending cuts before then, especially under Thatcher.

Since 1991 dividends payouts to shareholders of parent companies amount to above £57bn. That money could have increased the spend on maintaining and improving infrastructure by about 50%; and the large amounts spent on top water company bosses’ salaries, by even more.

The backlash has forced a limited response from the Tories, who passed a watered down amendment through parliament. Campaigners for clean water have pointed out that there is still no legally-binding rule for companies to report when they release sewage into waterways. Even this, however, would simply be a plaster on a gaping wound.

Only bringing water back into public ownership, with democratic control and oversight, can truly begin to redress the impact of decades of underfunding. Only public ownership can give the investment needed to upgrade and adapt as the climate changes and Britain experiences prolonged periods of heavy rain. Water is a natural monopoly. We all depend on it to survive. Shareholders and directors should not be able to use our need to line their pockets.

Solidarity campaigns to win the labour movement to public ownership of the water companies and other important public services like gas and energy companies, and major investment to improve infrastructure and transition rapidly away from environmentally damaging practices.

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