Water Pollution. Photo: Public Domain
Water Pollution. Photo: Public Domain

Clare Doyle, Hackney and Islington Socialist Party

A mass trespass of the Kinder Reservoir in the Peak District on 23 April by ‘wild’ swimmers. But swimming in Britain’s lakes and rivers is threatened by more than the feudal rights of the super-rich. It is beset by the appalling criminal negligence of private water companies and the total inefficiency of government bodies like Defra and the Environment Agency that are meant to control them.

The crisis of polluted, lifeless rivers and lakes in Britain (and elsewhere) is now constantly in the news. On 12 April, the Guardian carried the headline: “Boss of most polluting water firm retired after selling shares for £1.4 million.” It reported water bosses paying themselves no less than £24.8 million in 2021-22 and a boss of Thames Water receiving £2.8 million even after being sacked!

The slow suffocation of Lake Windermere under a carpet of algae bloom appears irreversible. Popular bathing spots in rivers as well as lakes have been ruled out of bounds (including in the constituency of the environment minister, Thérèse Coffey).  A new study has shown toxic foam floating on the surface of at least an eighth of Britain’s waterways – a direct result of wastewater and rainwater travelling along the same pipes.

Newspapers compete for the most sensational news and are running their own campaigns. The ‘i’ newspaper has its ‘Save Britain’s Rivers’ campaign, complete with a ‘Planet Patrol’ app. It aims to expose the ‘terrible effects’ of pollution, ‘raise awareness’ and draw up a ‘cross-party plan’. But not a word about taking management of water supply and waste disposal systems back out of the hands of the vast, profit-making companies.

The Times has joined the bandwagon with its ‘Clean it Up’ campaign. On 27 March it seemed to be claiming credit for the fact that the amount of time untreated sewage is being released into our waterways has fallen by 34%, but it reports the staggering figure that it “still amounted to 1.7 million hours”!

Crises sell papers

This life and death issue sells papers to a concerned public and newspaper owners (like water company bosses) are, of course, in business to make money. Organisations like ‘Surfers against Sewage’ and Windrush Against Sewage Pollution have long been condemning the desecration of our rivers, but profit is still king.

In March, Perenco, the company operating one of the largest onshore oil fields in Europe, was responsible for a deadly oil slick that spread across the second-largest natural harbour in the world – Poole, in Dorset. It’s reported the problem is now ‘contained’. Oil (and profits) can flow again… but how many fish, sea plants and other living things have been killed, and how long before sailors and swimmers can feel confident about going back into the water?

For genuine health and safety reasons, waters in and around the British Isles – from the Yorkshire Dales to the Channel coast – are now out of bounds. Dying rivers and lakes are not just a cause of grief to anglers and swimmers, but actually to everyone. The availability of fresh water is vital to all life, but, in our class-ridden society, a plentiful supply is by no means guaranteed even in this ‘advanced’ capitalist country.

Yet every household in Britain is being asked to pay increasing amounts in water rates to these profit-hungry companies. Nearly 5 million households may not be able to pay their water bills this year. In the context of the already crippling rise in the cost of living, this is a further turn of the inflationary screw bearing down on working-class households.

Powerful indictment

In March this year, a two-part TV documentary called ‘Our Troubled Rivers’ was shown by the BBC. It took a comic actor (and angler), Paul Whitehouse, joined by a singer – Feargal Sharkey – to put together a really hard-hitting exposé of the way in which Britain’s rivers, lakes and beaches are being polluted to death.

They set out to show conclusively that the country’s privatised water companies have done little or nothing to stop the continual overflow of sewers into the country’s waterways. They graphically illustrated what was happening by showing samples of the effluent including not only human and animal excrement but nappies, sanitary towels and condoms.

It was a hard-hitting indictment first of Margaret Thatcher’s wholesale privatisation of the country’s water industry and then of the continual “corporate greed and profiteering” of the companies concerned. But socialists would add that the account books of all these companies should be open to scrutiny by trade union representatives of those who work in them.

Make them pay!

The government-run Defra estimated it will take a £56 billion investment programme to overcome the major problems that have developed. Paul Whitehouse quite correctly pointed out that water companies had made no less than £72 billion in profit already, so why were they not forced to take the urgent action necessary?

The water industry’s ‘regulator’ Ofwat reported last December that “poor performance has become the norm”. £66 billion had been paid out in debts over 30 years of private ownership, and new debts of £54 billion taken on, but little or nothing done about sewage treatment or drought resilience.

“The companies have been levied only £142 million in fines for negligence since 2015”, said Paul. “Some of the top CEOs are being paid two, three or four times that amount per year!” Fergal exclaims: “And go dumping shit on the beach!”

The workers in these companies, many no doubt low paid, should demand that the company books be opened to trade union inspection to see where the money is going. This would inevitably give rise to demands for a return to public ownership of water processing and distribution.

One of the many viewers of ‘Our Troubled Rivers’, commenting online straight after the first episode, wrote: “Record fines are just a fraction of the profits these companies are making – and (it’s) pointless if they just keep on doing it. Stop all sewage outflows now! I pay Severn Trent to pollute the Severn! I do not want my money feathering shareholders’ nests. Renationalise the water industry”.

A real alternative

This is the obvious answer to the water crisis in Britain. As with all the other public industries and services swept up in the Tories’ privatisation mania, renationalisation in itself is not sufficient. In Scotland, water is a state-owned enterprise, yet the figure for untreated sewage is rising and the highest since records began!

State ownership needs to be accompanied by a system of management and control by elected committees of workers’ representatives. This would mean the services and industries being planned and run in the interests of working-class people and not a tiny minority of very rich so-called entrepreneurs.

Unfortunately, the party most likely to win the next election – Labour – advocates “mandatory monitoring and automatic fines” and “accountability for negligent water bosses”; not a word about renationalisation and democratic, state planning.

The dire crises that have developed over water in Britain and elsewhere in the world make fighting for a socialist alternative to capitalism more urgent than ever.