The United Kingdom wants to eliminate sewer backlog, but it will take decades

Last year an activist protested against sewerage expansion in London.Image by AP

Britons looking to hit the beach on these glorious summer days should be careful. In many places, especially on beaches in the southeast, the water is brown from feces. Indeed, French neighbors complained that the British were using the North Sea and the Channel as an open sewer. A French MEP has himself urged the European Commission to launch an investigation into British dirt-spraying. Bathing is not only dirty, but also dangerous for shellfish.

Water surplus

A wave of pollution followed by heavy rains brought a temporary halt to the never-ending heat wave. Due to the water shortage in the last few weeks, the inflow of water suddenly exceeded the storage capacity. Privatized water companies on the island allowed surplus water, a mix of rain and sewage, to flow into rivers and the sea. This is a common practice.

Activist groups have been protesting for years, including Surfers Against Sewage, founded in 1990 for surfers in Cornwall. The water companies are dominated by the Conservative government, which late last year scrapped a bill aimed at stopping dumping. In 2021 alone, more than 400,000 times more dirty water ended up in rivers and seas, according to figures from the Environment Agency, the British version of the Rijkswaterstaat.

Under community pressure, conservative Eustis – dubbed ‘useless’ by its critics – has pledged to stop dumping excess, untreated water. He spoke on ‘Revolution of our sewage system’. In the 19th century, the British were world pioneers in this field. For this purpose, water companies will have to invest 66 billion euros, which will be borne mostly by consumers, the minister predicted.

Natural monopoly

That would be bad, because British water companies don’t have a good reputation. There are regular reports of huge sums of money being collected by directors when outdated water networks are in disrepair. With spray bans in place in half of England, several streets in north London recently suffered major spills. Since privatization in 1991, more than €67 billion has been paid out to shareholders of natural monopoly water companies.

Eustis said the problem has been ignored for years and action will finally be taken. Critics have been prompted to point to the fact that the Conservative government has been in power for 12 years. According to the press association’s response, environmentalist Feargal Sharkey is skeptical of the plans. According to the former singer of The Undertones, water companies are being kept off air and could continue to dump sewage for decades.

Liberal Democrat Tim Farron also wants more urgency. “While the water companies are rolling in cash,” he told The Evening Standard, “we’re swimming in sewage.”

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