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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

Agricultural waste

On top of sewage, there is the challenge of agricultural waste discharge, which could in fact be dried and sold as an alternative to artificial fertilizers. But in many cases, it is easier to dump it in nearby rivers, at a small financial cost but a much bigger ecological one.

"If you're the CEO of a water company or agriculture business, river pollution is an acceptable risk," Wallace said. "You'll get a small fine, but it's nothing compared to the alternative, which is investing in infrastructure, so it's a risk worth taking."

However, the longer-term price, as shown by the health of the Wye, is a heavy one.

"There are thousands of poultry sheds in a small catchment area, producing tons of waste. Much of it gets washed into the river and causes the growth of algal blooms, which shut out the light getting into the water, and the lack of oxygen kills wildlife," he said.

Wardley of The Rivers Trust said the crisis becoming such a public issue does offer hope for change. "As long as the pressure stays on, there is hope, but the risk is that because of the baying for water company's blood, they may put in short-term solutions that don't have long-term benefits," she said.

Wallace too acknowledged there is no flick of a switch solution that could cure everything, but said something must be done.

"We're in a freshwater emergency, when is the government going to act like we are?" he said.

"We can bail out banks, we can give tax breaks to oil and gas companies, so why don't we treat water like it matters? We could easily afford to treat it if water was seen as being as important as energy, education or policing, but we seem to be at the bottom of the pile.

"This is an emergency. When are the water industry and agriculture going to be made to invest in infrastructure so they don't pollute? That way, we can secure clean water, not just for future generations, but for us, now. We're running out."

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