On this famously sodden isle, the idea of running out of water is almost incomprehensible. But according to Environment Agency data, it will happen in the next 25 years if we don’t take action.

England needs to find an additional four billion litres of water a day by 2050, or our reserves will grind to a spluttering halt in dry weather, and our rivers will lose half their water. Polluted waterways, over-abstraction, leaky pipes, corporate greed and climate change are draining our clean water supplies, creating an existential threat to life as we know it.

For drier regions in the south of England, the risk of water scarcity looms larger. Thames Water, which serves 16m customers across London and the Thames Valley, professes to love an eco-conscious customer. They advise us to take shorter showers, use the washing machine less, and of course turn off the tap when we brush our teeth. “We all need to save every drop we can, right now,” their website says with doe-eyed sincerity.

“This is a classic, 101 tactic from big industry,” says Hugo Tagholm, former CEO of Surfers Against Sewage. In the same way that BP coined the term “carbon footprint” to shift responsibility for climate change away from big oil and onto the individual, water companies tell us, straight-faced, to save toilet flushes for “when they really matter”.

Meanwhile, Thames Water leak 234 Olympic swimming pools of water out of their pipes every day – the equivalent to leaving your tap on for 700,000 hours. On a section of their website charmingly entitled “our leakage performance”, Thames admit they leak 24 per cent of their supply. But fear not! They will be investing £200 million to provide “shiny new pipes”.

That’s less than ten per cent of the £2.8bn that previous Australian owners Macquarie paid out in shareholder dividends during their stewardship of the utility from 2006 to 2017, during which time the company’s debt ballooned from £3.4bn to over £10bn. That debt pile now stands at £14bn and Thames is on the brink of financial collapse. They are lobbying the government to let them increase water bills by 40 per cent, lower fines and resume dividend payments. If successful, our water bills will rise 40 per cent by 2030.

At every turn, it is the consumer who shoulders the burden of corporate greed and regulatory failure. Nor do we have any choice in the matter. When water was privatised in 1989, companies were effectively handed monopolies. “We could stop paying our water bills,” one activist told me, “but you know, we’re law-abiding citizens.” We might be happier to help Thames if they hadn’t spent the last three decades polluting our rivers. No sane person would swim in the London stretch of the Thames, but many of the smaller rivers and tributaries that feed into it are the lifeblood of towns and villages in Thames Water’s catchment.

If Thames Water have their way, our bills will rise 40 per cent by 2030

Take the River Evenlode, which rises in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire, and runs through a handful of achingly quaint Cotswolds villages. Search it up on Google and you’ll be met with bucolic scenes of children and wild swimmers, dogs fetching balls, and families splashing in the shallows with little fishing nets. The river still holds vestiges of this former self. In some places, on some days, the river still runs clear over the golden gravel, mayflies skim along the water, and eagle-eyed observers might spot bullhead fish darting in the shallows, the question-mark neck of an egret, or even an otter searching for crayfish.
“They’re becoming rarer and rarer though, because they don’t have anything to eat,” says local Sam Frith, who has set up a campaign group called Riverlution Evenlode.

This is because raw sewage flowed into the river for nearly 12,000 hours last year, and the river is usually a murky brown. Sewage fungus blooms on the surface, swallowing up all the oxygen and suffocating the plants and animals that once thrived in the river.
This is not an issue limited to Thames Water. Pick any watercourse in England, from little-known tributaries to rare chalk streams, and there will be a sewage scandal lurking round the bend. According to The Rivers Trust, not a single stretch of river in England is in good overall health.

Across the country, communities are getting together, testing the water quality and launching grassroots campaigns of their own, because Ofwat and the Environment Agency have failed to hold water companies accountable. But it’s impossible to stop companies from dumping sewage without policy intervention. “Change has to happen on a government, MP, House of Parliament level,” says Frith. “Because there’s just so many loopholes, too many people kicking the can down the road or passing the buck.”

A recent survey found that 56 per cent of voters will be weighing the government’s handling of sewage spills into how they vote. But unless more of us demand radical change at the next election, we are – quite literally – in the shit.

Claudia Cockerell is a freelance journalist in London. She’s written for The Evening Standard, the New Statesman and The Oldie

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April 2024, Main Features

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