Our water system is ‘profoundly unsustainable’

Water is a precious commodity, says Green Peer Natalie Bennett, and it should be treated as such. As they currently stand, water companies such as Southern Water are ‘criminal enterprises’, consistently discharging unlawful effluent into the UK’s rivers, lakes and seas.

Natalie Bennett surrounded by SOS Whitstable placards
Natalie Bennett

On Saturday, I joined the SOS Whitstable in a protest against Southern Water’s continual polluting of the sea of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire with sewage.

When I say continual, that means almost whenever it rains. In the Canterbury district alone, there were more than 20 releases in a week, one lasting more than 16 hours. That reflects what’s happening around the country – just this morning the Financial Times reported that Thames Water unlawfully discharged effluent on 735 days in past three years. Rivers and lakes are being affected just as much as our seas.

SOS Whitstable is only two months old, founded by sea swimmers sick – literally – after pursuing their healthy activity, or unable to go into the water at all. 

At one level, this is a story about the impact of the disastrous financialisation of even the basic social provisions in our society – water companies sold off, often through a cascading run of increasingly murkier merchant bankers and hedge funds, loaded with debt, shovelling out dividends like the most conscientious farmworker tackling the dung heap, while failing to invest in essential infrastructure to handle the impact of population growth and increasingly intense rainfall resulting from the climate emergency.

Southern Water is – a judge told us – a criminal enterprise. It is one that seems to regard fines as just part of the cost of doing business, only a minor impediment to profits, and no curb at all it seems on executive bonuses. Our privatised energy companies are a similar story, competition in a field in which the practice only drives risk-taking and speculation, leaving the taxpayers footing the bill both directly (£820 million at last tally) and in their charges. We all pay, literally in the case of the water companies, in shit.

This is the economic system of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair – comprehensively failed and broken. That utilities should be in public hands, run for public good rather than private profit, is something the Green Party has been saying since they were first privatised – it is now self-evidently right. 

But there’s a deeper, linked, issue at play in the water crisis. In my semi-regular conversations on plastic pollution with a right-wing media host, we’ve settled into a pattern. I say, ‘There is no such place as ‘away’. You can’t throw anything ‘away’’. She says, in tones of a discovery being made, ‘Yesss – you are right’.

We’ve long been treating the seas and oceans as a dump, assuming that the vast expanse, covering 70 per cent of the planet, would dilute even the most toxic materials – from DDT to radioactive waste to still dangerous armaments – into insignificance. But we were wrong, failing to consider the delicate, crucial ecosystems in those seas, and the cumulative damage inflicted over decades. We’ve taken easy, cheap options – in management of sewage and rainwater, as with much else – and it is costing us the Earth.

Back in 2006, I remember learning from the work of the then lone Green councillor on Islington Council, Emma Dixon, about sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS). A few years later, I visited the Lilac Cooperative co-housing project in Leeds, which had such a system, holding water at the centre of the homes in a wildlife and vegetation-rich patch that is a real highlight of local lives. It is possible – indeed essential – to build new developments with SUDS as standard.

But there’s more we need to do. Drinking water is a precious commodity, yet nearly all homes in the UK use it to flush toilets and water gardens. Part of a SUDs system should be a system in every new home to collect rainwater and relatively clean water used elsewhere in the home for these uses. It is about using resources frugally, and not wasting the essentials of life, as our current system is built to as standard.

The Environment Bill is back in the Commons on October 20, the House of Lords having inserted, among 14 amendments in total, one demanding an improvement in sewage and drainage systems. Lobbying for that was driven by SOS Whitstable – a hugely impressive demonstration that campaigning works – and is being stepped up again, the Commons being told it must listen to the people, not the interests of profit.

We’ll see how that goes, but as I finished my speech on Saturday, the good news is that where we are now is profoundly unsustainable. The system will change – and system change is what we need. No individual can make a difference to the environmental impact of sewage, but people getting together can, as SOS Whistable is. As Pete the Poet recited in a colourful and pointed verse: “When flushing my poo, what I want to say is adieu not au revoir”.