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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

High-profile victim

A man looks at the water covered in duckweed, also called lemnoideae, by River Thames, on the Isle of Dogs, east London, on June 25. Hot weather has caused the explosion of duckweed on London waterways. HENRY NICHOLLS/AFP

But more recently, it has become one of the most high-profile victims of the river pollution crisis, because in addition to sewage, agricultural waste, particularly from poultry farms, is ending up in its water after being used as fertilizer on fields, and then being washed in.

In May last year, a study by Lancaster University found that 60 to 70 percent of the phosphorus in the Wye came from agriculture, and 12 months later, government nature watchdog Natural England downgraded its status from unfavorable-improving to unfavorable-declining.

The Rivers Trust is the umbrella group for 65 river trusts, including the Wye. Tessa Wardley, the trust's director of communications and advocacy, told China Daily that it was close to a tipping point where its ecosystem could collapse.

"Each river has its own problems because a river is an indicator of everything going on in its catchment area, and the Wye has a uniquely heavy concentration of poultry farms — around one-quarter of the country's chickens and eggs are produced along the banks of the Wye, which was a deliberately encouraged government policy," she said.

"Not only that, but for planning purposes, lots of the chicken sheds were put close to the riverbank. Most of the food the chickens eat is derived from soya products from abroad, so it already has a footprint, and then becomes an additional unnatural loading of nutrients into the system, so the Wye has very particular problems."

Environmental charity River Action UK monitors the state of Britain's waterways and water industry, and aims to bring about action and change when needed. At the moment, its chief executive, James Wallace, told China Daily that it is needed everywhere.

"When the water industry was privatized 30 years ago, the companies were debt-free and the system was in reasonable condition. But since then, the companies have indebted themselves to pay shareholders huge dividends and high salaries to CEOs, so now they have big debts, an outdated system and no money to update it," he said.

"It's been a slow, insidious process allowed by a government that encourages deregulation, and it's only become headline news now because of people and communities educating themselves about what is going on, standing up and saying 'no'."

There are rules that exist, but there seems to be a lack of willingness to enforce them, which has resulted in an environmental crisis, and now a political crisis.

"People like us are making this political — you can't do anything without water," Wallace said.

"We're facing a freshwater emergency, we're running out of supplies, wildlife is declining, public health is at risk, and food production and the entire economy will soon be at risk.

"North London will have water rationing soon, there are hosepipe bans in place, and this is only June. Meanwhile, the companies make huge amounts of money.

"In extreme circumstances, water companies are allowed to release untreated sewage into rivers, but it's happening all the time.

"On May 9 at Henley-on-Thames (in England), untreated sewage discharge was allowed for 12 hours, and that's when there had been no rain for weeks. In 2016, there were 100,000 hours of sewage spills in England's rivers, in 2021 that figure was 2.6 million hours."

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