Talking dirty

A river is time in water; as it came, still so it flows, yet never is the same

In June 2019, at the BMF Conference in Dubrovnik, I got up at stupid-o’clock to go for a swim in the Adriatic Sea, an attempt to clear my hangover. It worked. At 6am I was swimming in the clearest, cleanest water I’d ever seen. It was utterly glorious.

Yet, just 10 years before that, thousands of households round the coast of Croatia were discharging their sewage directly into that sea. In 2009, only 26% of households were connected to any kind of sewage treatment plant. Within six years, thanks to a project partly funded by the World Bank, and a commitment on behalf of politicians, that had risen to 76%, and today, more than 95% of Croatian bathing sites are classified as excellent.

In 2020, the last year in which the UK contributed data to the European Environment Agency’s bathing water rankings, we came last. We’re the dirty man of Europe in terms of our water. It’s not something to be proud of. These days, the best time to go to a UK beach is in the winter, wrapped up, gloved, and too cold to be tempted to strip off for a paddle. I know cold water swimming is supposed to be good for the circulation, but fantastic circulation is no good if you subsequently expire from some ghastly respiratory disease you picked up in the sea off Winchelsea Beach.

I’m lucky enough to live within easy distance of the seaside, yet last Summer there were warnings all round Kent and Sussex to stay away from the beaches due to the huge amounts of raw sewage that had been pumped, yet again into the sea. Apparently, this is due to exceptional circumstances and weather causing mass flooding. Maybe I’m getting hung up on semantics here, but I’ve always thought that ‘exceptional’ referred to things or events that do not happen very often, that are out of the ordinary, not to be expected. I really wouldn’t put heavy rain in England in the winter and Spring into that category. At all.

It’s not just our seas that are choked with unmentionables. Our rivers are too. Rivers, which affect our local eco systems, are being flooded with discharge from sewage treatment plants because the companies concerned still have permits to do so. Permits that were meant to be temporary but which have been in place for more than 10 years. Last month the Times highlighted the River Misbourne in Buckinghamshire. A sewage treatment works operated by Thames Water spent 12 days releasing a blend of raw sewage and rainwater into the Misbourne. And they were OK to do so because of one of these ever-lasting temporary permits. Only when incredibly heavy rain threatens to overwhelm the system should this be allowed to happen. Any time stricter conditions are suggested, the water companies complain that cleaning up their act would require too much investment, and that household water bills would have to rise to pay for it.   We do view water as too cheap a commodity in this country it’s true, but arguments like this just put me in mind of the energy companies. Households’ energy bills have trebled, quadruped, quintupled etc in the last year or so. As have energy company profits. Why would anyone buy a company that supplies water and sewage treatment services to UK households? Because they know they can make a sh*t-load of money, pun intended, out of it. Foreign investment firms, private equity, pension funds and businesses lodged in tax havens own more than 70% of the water industry in England. With no jeopardy in terms of how they deal with excess waste, with MPs voting to allow it to continue, with the excuse of concern for household bills, no wonder nothing is happening.

Yet it needs to. Biology 101 teaches us that the health of people, animals, plants and the environment are closely linked and interdependent. If we shovel our rivers, lakes, streams and seas full of chemicals, sewage and pollutants, we’re basically poisoning ourselves and our environment, and storing up goodness knows what trouble for our health in the future.

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Looks lovely doesn’t it? But I’m not sure I’d fancy a dip in it.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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