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Britain's water systems in knee-deep trouble

By Julian Shea in London | China Daily | Updated: 2023-07-11 09:49

Sewage spills from ill-maintained drains leave rivers polluted, smelly

Editor's note: From the safety of swimming beaches to the health of river systems, the United Kingdom's waterways are in a bad shape. This page takes a close look at the country's sewage pollution crisis, which has been worsening because of untreated sewage released into rivers and seas by privatized water companies.

An aerial view shows activists from the campaign group Surfers Against Sewage paddleboarding to protest against sewage pollution in Brighton, southern England, on May 20. BEN STANSALL/AFP

In a speech from William Shakespeare's play Richard II, England is described as "this scepter'd isle ... This precious stone set in the silver sea", as the speaker celebrates his homeland, before changing tone to warn of a darker mood.

"England, bound in with the triumphant sea, whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame."

But this summer, the seas around Britain are far more shameful than silver, because at sites along the 17,820 kilometers of the mainland coastline, there is a dirty, smelly problem that is not going away.

The "scepter'd isle" is set in a sea of sewage, and its arterial rivers are also infected. Britain has a full-on clean water crisis, and the privatized water companies that have caused it are in increasingly serious financial peril.

Arguably Britain's most famous coastal resort is Blackpool, on the northwest coast of Lancashire, famed for its long beaches. But in June, with the tourist season barely having begun, visitors were told to stay out of the sea after traces of E. coli bacteria were found in the water, following a sewage spill from drains maintained by United Utilities, which has been declared England's most polluting water company, and which recently paid dividends to shareholders worth 301 million pounds ($380.7 million).

Blackpool Council leader Lynn Williams has described the situation as "incredibly disappointing and really worrying… it's appalling", and it has been repeated elsewhere, BBC reported last month.

At Scarborough, Yorkshire, campaign group Surfers Against Sewage staged an event to protest against sewage discharges, only to be advised by lifeguards that it was not safe to go into the water because of its poor quality.

Utility company Yorkshire Water said work to improve the water would begin within two years.

With the United Kingdom's housing crisis and climate change putting further strains on the aging drainage system, and with reports that water bills are on course to rise significantly during a cost of living crisis, as well as a general election on the far horizon, water is becoming an ever-bigger political issue, and a source of genuine public anger.

In most British houses, a combined sewerage system means rainwater and domestic wastewater go through the same pipes, usually to a sewage treatment plant.

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