OPINION - 769 toxic spills lasting 3,286 hours: the Thames in 2022


We’ve tried dumping sewage into the Thames before, it doesn’t end well. The Summer of 1858 was known as the ‘Great Stink‘, thanks to a combination of warm weather, untreated human effluence and industrial waste flowing into the river.

The incident precipitated an expansion of the capital’s sewer system and helped to bring an end to the cholera outbreaks that would periodically tear through the city. Still, in 1957, A.C. Wheeler, a scientist at the Natural History Museum, declared that parts of the Thames were ‘biologically dead’, largely due to industrial waste. This eventually led to the construction of further treatment works and other improvements along the river, sparking its recovery.

But London’s waterways still cannot be said to be in a good state. As political correspondent Rachael Burford reports, sewage poured into London’s rivers for an astonishing 7,000 hours last year — more than 291 days. The Thames alone saw 769 toxic spills lasting a total of 3,286 hours. Thames Water helpfully provides a map of sewage discharges in the city, which is updated in real-time.

Thames Water, which is England’s largest privatised water company, has been hit with tens of millions of pounds worth of fines in the last five years due to leaks of untreated sewage into rivers. Under further proposals announced this week, they will face legally binding targets to cut releases.

Why does this keep happening? Plenty of criticism has been directed at Defra as well as the regulator, Ofwat. But there is also a growing sense that this is the inevitable consequence when you privatise an industry that is really a natural monopoly. Take what has happened to investment in the sector.

A Thames Water spokesperson said the company has “committed £1.6bn of investment in our sewage treatment works and sewers over the next two years.” This sounds like a lot, but it barely scratches the surface. Since privatisation, which we were told would spur money going into infrastructure, annual investment has fallen from £2.9bn a year to £2.4bn, according to the Financial Times.

And here’s the stat to really make you take a blow torch to your kitchen sink: the firms, which had no debt at the time of privatisation, have since borrowed £53bn, much of which has been taken to pay out £72bn in dividends.

The issue of sewage in rivers has become a clear political problem for the government. To put it mildly, people do not like it if their local waterway, whether it be the giant Thames or a local brook, is filled with faeces. Opposition parties have taken note too, particularly the Liberal Democrats. Oddly, Labour has been somewhat less conspicuous on the issue. No cheating – can you name the shadow Defra secretary?

Ultimately, opposition to sewage in rivers both unites voters and is difficult to conceal. The parliamentary fun and games over Labour’s opposition day debate this week will change few minds in the run-up to the local elections and beyond.

Elsewhere in the paper, Google Earth has updated its satellite imagery over the besieged city of Mariupol, laying bare the utter devastation wrought by Russia’s invasion.

In the comment pages, Ben Judah warns that in In the green race, China, the US and EU are leaving Britain for dust. Education editor Anna Davis fears nobody seems to care about ending this teaching strike. While Sarfraz Manzoor admits he only had kids because of FOMO.

And finally, check out the author Lauren Bravo on her love of charity shops and the timeless thrill of thrifting in the capital.

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