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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

System overload

Harri Rose from the environmental charity River Action UK takes samples of water to test pollution levels in River Thames, London, on April 25, as the charity launches the Charter for Rivers calling for political parties to commit to restoring rivers to health by 2030. PA WIRE

However, when there is excessive rainfall or the ground is too hard to absorb rainwater, the potential for system overload allows for the permitted discharge of excess wastewater into the sea and rivers.

Last year was the United Kingdom's hottest year on record, causing hard-baked ground, unable to absorb water, weather forecasting bureau the Met Office has confirmed, and all the signs are that extreme conditions — heavier rainfall and higher temperatures — will be more commonplace in the future.

There is concern that permitted discharge has been abused by water companies, which have failed to invest in and maintain their infrastructure, to dump sewage into otherwise clean water.

After years of paying shareholders large dividends, and burdening themselves with debt, rising interest rates have exposed some companies' financial vulnerability, leading to more frequent sewage dumping because of the lack of adequate alternative provision.

In 2018, then-environment secretary Michael Gove wrote to the head of the water services regulation authority Ofwat expressing fears over how it was run.

"The use by some water companies of opaque financial structures based in tax havens and high gearing is deeply concerning," he wrote. "I also share your concern that some water companies have, for many years, been making excessive profits."

Environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey told the Good Morning Britain news program that the dumping crisis was "masking a much bigger issue" — these companies have been ram-raided by their owners for cash.

" (Since privatization) they've made off with 72 billion pounds ($92.2 billion) of our bills and our money, and perhaps some of that should have been spent fixing leaky pipes and the sewage system.

"That's what has caused this crisis — interest rates have gone up, and they can't afford to service the debt on the balance sheets."

The health of Britain's rivers is no less worrying. Most major cities are built around or close to rivers, such as the Thames, the Mersey, the Trent, the Tyne and the Clyde, but arguably more important than urban rivers, whose arterial functions have been overtaken by infrastructure buildup, are rural rivers.

One of the most important is the River Wye, the country's fourth-longest river.

For much of its 250-kilometer length, it is the border between England and Wales, famed for its areas of outstanding natural beauty, and its fish stock.

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