Last week’s blog on the subject of wastewater discharges struck a cord amongst colleagues which encouraged me to reach out to my local Member of Parliament to spell out the facts. My first brief attempt did not elicit the response I was looking for, so I spelt out the simple facts of life in a much more detailed email reproduced below. I am pleased to say that the approach I outlined was accepted in a response from my MP as being ‘very balanced’. Hopefully this suggestion is a way forward in the balancing act between achieving environmental standards and deploying resources. It would be good if we tried to elevate the profile of water issues with politicians to ensure the best possible decisions in a political arena which are otherwise prone to being dominated by short term electoral cycles. Here is the email I sent:
Dear Mr Howell,
Thanks for your detailed and considered response to my first email.
The water companies have an impossible task that cannot possibly be achieved with the tools at hand. The infrastructure they rely on was first introduced 150 years ago in London in 1870 and was added to over the next 100 years up until the 1960s. There has been effectively no further development of our wastewater infrastructure since the 1960s.
However, since the mid 1960s the UK population has grown by more than 20%, and our per capita water use has grown six fold which means that we now consume 7.5 times the water and discharge 7.5 times the amount of wastewater than when we did when our wastewater infrastructure was created.
The consequence is that the water companies do not have any chance of treating all of the wastewater as intended, i.e. with discharges being the exception. Many sewage works discharge continuously and nearly all discharge frequently and at huge volumes. The extent of the problem is mind-boggling. It’s not a question of poor management, but physical impossibility.
When we add the effects of climate change to this with more intense rainfall events, the situation is made worse.
The water companies discharge wastewater since the current system of fines makes it much more commercially attractive for them to do so than to spend their own funds on improving infrastructure to reduce the problem. I have noticed that fines have increased sharply so this will change the equation somewhat, but at the end of the day it is not possible to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. Or a more accurate analogy would be squeezing a gallon into a pint pot.
The wastewater issue has an analogy from the drinking water side of the industry from the 1990s. Soon after privatization, the industry encountered the problem of cryptosporidium in some water sources. The Government introduced legislation in which treatment processes had to be upgraded for high risk sources and a barrier process installed. Companies had to carry out a risk assessment of all sources and apply for funds for those sources deemed at risk. The costs were passed to the consumer.
The approach was pragmatic, affordable and overcame the problem completely within 10 years of the legislation being introduced. Before action was taken, there were many cases of sickness and in the USA many deaths. This problem has now been consigned to history through Government actions.
The wastewater infrastructure problem is much more serious in terms of scope and cost but could be addressed in a similar way but over a much longer timescale. I am not surprised by the estimate of £600bn and this is an eye-watering sum. However, it does not need to be spent at once and could be spent over 30-60 years to gradually address what is in fact a systemic problem in our infrastructure.
No amount of pressure on water companies is going to solve this problem. At best it will slightly reduce some high profile disasters, but the source of the problem will not be addressed until we upgrade our wastewater infrastructure so that it is fit for purpose for the 21st century. With what we have, we are literally 60 years out of date.
It should be possible to instruct the water companies to carry out a risk assessment and gradually address the problem. Ofwat would review these risk assessments and allow successful projects to proceed, funded out of water bills. It would not be necessary to address the whole network all at once. The pace of the upgrade would be a political decision and could be taken as quicky or slowly as deemed necessary based on the balance of environmental and health benefits vs cost impact on consumers. A budget of £10 or 20bn per annum would progressively eliminate the problem. By doing it this way, the most serious breaches would be addressed first and value for money would be assured. The cost would not be paid for out of general taxation but through water bills, as was the case for cryptosporidium. Politicians would make the judgement on the pace of change.
What I am suggesting therefore is that a plan is needed to address this problem in the long term. I am not suggesting it needs to be addressed in a single parliamentary term or even in my lifetime but we need to have a direction of travel which is sustainable. It is analogous to the issue of climate change in that commitments need to be made which can be enacted over multiple parliamentary terms.
I am not lobbying for a particular group, but I am a concerned grandparent, since the issues I am raising will have a profound effect on my grandchildren. Sperm counts are now 40% of what they were when I was a child. Life expectancy is now diminishing, have risen slightly every year for decades. Sewage discharges are a key contributory factor because we ingest chemicals which are gradually building up in the environment from our wastewater. The problems will be compounded unless the issue is systematically addressed. Please let me know if you would like to discuss further or if there is any input I can make. If there is a working party on this issue that my thoughts could be passed on to, I would be happy to engage.