Britain’s dire water situation is no joke

Privatisation has stolen over £60bn from essential services, leaving the country to wallow in its own filth.

Proletarian writers

Private water companies’ lack of maintenance and investment, combined with their cost-cutting at the expense of health and environment, are pushing Britains’s water system to the brink, even as company directors and shareholders are earning huge dividends from their shameless pillaging of the nation’s wealth.

It is not often that a Marxist-Leninist would concede that the Bible makes a good point. Deuteronomy 23:11-14 is one of the few verses that still hold water.

Myriad translations abound, but the general gist is this: Of an evening, bathe in water, return to camp. Designate an area outside of the camp to relieve yourselves. Dig a hole with a shovel and, when done, cover it over.

Such biblical wisdom has been lost on a number of paid-to-a-point-of-glut water CEOs in Britain. Granted their positions of power in the land, in their benevolent wisdom, they have decided that the ‘designated area’ may be any and every waterway; that bathing in excrement is good enough for the people of this country.

The deluge isn’t limited to household flushings. Industrial waste, too, is wreaking havoc on delicate ecosystems, leading to an abysmal prospect of existence for any aquatic-based lifeforms. Mass die-offs of marine life have occurred in the north of England, sparking suspicions that there may have been a massive government cover-up of a leak of something rather more serious than ‘algae bloom’.

Nitrates in fertilisers used by farmers cause eutrophication in almost every pond and lake. Spot-on routine medical treatments for pets, who then are allowed to swim in natural waterways, cause catastrophic loss of microorganic life. Our river systems are taking a hammering – as are the dwindling number of wild animals that still use them as a drinking source.

Sewage dumping provokes righteous indignation but no action

Recent protests at beaches across the country have chosen to focus on the dumping of sewage. In lieu of any meaningful political action from supposed ‘regulators’ like Ofwat or the Environment Agency, disgruntled workers have come together to bang pots and pans, wave placards, pose for photos and then pen letters to MPs – all of which are subsequently filed in the draw marked ‘ignore’ or simply binned.

Reported figures vary depending upon source, measurement and period, but there really is no way to spin or downplay them. As a Guardian article pointed out in November: ‘nine million hours of raw sewage have been spilled in the UK since 2016’. Nine million hours is 1,027 years. That’s a steady stream.

The Guardian article cited above was documenting a 2,000-strong demonstration on Tankerton beach in Whitstable, Kent. Water quality had been the most frequent concern raised by constituents in the nearby Gorrell ward by-election in 2021 – a concern that led to the election of Green candidate Clare Turnball to the parish council, for all the good that will do anyone.

The beach at Tankerton retains its ‘blue flag’ status despite local residents and Green party campaigners testing the water themselves and finding positive results for e-coli and other harmful bacteria.

On a website littered with grammatical errors, the local Labour council has ‘called for’ the adoption of a five-point ‘action plan’: More data, better signage, hold some meetings, include water quality in the coastal management plan, and ask new housing developments to do more to deal with rainwater.

‘Action’ taken since then has amounted to nothing more than the installation by Southern Water of a real-time monitoring buoy, which so far has yielded precisely no data.

Also in November, the Times ran an article showing Cornwall’s Trevaunance Cove in St Agnes awash with effluent. This pristine ‘blue flag’ beach is at the bottom of the hill from the headquarters of Surfers Against Sewage, which offers the other half of every keen surfer’s pre-splash routine: for the surf report, SAS’s Safer Seas Service for the shit report.

Surfers Against Sewage’s 20 years of determined existence is a sad testament to capitalism’s priorities, this spillage a real personal slap in their faeces.

During his short stint as environment secretary in Liz Truss’s ill-fated cabinet, Ranil Jayawardena demanded that every water company boss write to him with plans to reduce storm overflows. Letters to Defra from water company executives, released under the Freedom of information act, complained of failures to bring in new laws to help them (CEOs) deal with their sewage discharges.

A recent motion to amend an environmental bill, tabled by the Duke of Wellington, which would have placed a legal duty on water companies to end the discharge of untreated sewage from storm overflows, was thrown out by the House of Lords like jetsam – the upper house desperately trying to keep this moribund profit-driven system afloat, no matter what the cost to people or planet.

Misdirection and myopia lead to fiddling while the Titanic goes down

As blame in the mainstream corporate media flows from one sea of ineptitude to the next, from water companies to politicians to crumbling Victorian infrastructure to wet wipes to the House of Lords and back again to the water companies, protestors are left rudderless and confused, unable to work out where they should be directing their justifiable discontent.

Environmentalist George Monbiot’s tactic is to rely on the chance of a revelatory miracle appearing to waken the political system to the reality of its sins like the Ghost of Christmas Future. He has pinpointed capitalism as the problem, but lacks the ability to extend his search for solutions beyond the capitalist system and its social-democratic safety-net.

The University of Greenwich released a paper at the beginning of this year reporting in detail on the dire situation in Britain’s water system. Its authors noted how the water companies work to hide the extent and source of their astronomical dividends:

“The English regulated water and sewerage companies (WASCs) have paid shareholders a total of £18.9bn in dividends since 2010 to 2021 – an annual average of £1.6bn.

“These dividends have increased the cost of water and sewerage to consumers by an average of £69 per household per year over the last 12 years – over £1.30 per week from every household in England.

“In reality, investments have been entirely financed from customer payments, almost every year. Investments have been paid for by consumers, and have not involved any finance from shareholders.”

This author is running out of water puns, a playful homage to those found in all the mainstream media articles on this topic. But there was one obvious pun not found sloshing around: not a single author tried to make the case for these obscene CEO payouts ‘trickling down’ to Britain’s workers.

Meanwhile, the fines levied against water companies by toothless regulators are simply being absorbed as a cost of doing business – witness the recent ‘record-breaking’ £90m slap on the wrist to Southern Water for its 6,971 ‘unpermitted’ (as opposed to permitted?) polluting incidents. No individual has been held accountable, and business continues in the same way regardless.

According to the same Greenwich university report, the parasitism is worse even than it appears: “The companies have nevertheless borrowed large amounts of money, building up a large pile of debt and large annual bill for interest. This debt has not been taken on to finance investment, but to finance the payment of dividends.” (Our emphasis)

The report further calculates that the privatisation of the water companies costs households in Britain £93 more every year than if the system was in public hands. Such evidence points away from capitalist efficiency and towards a freeloading contempt for the working class.

Those who are educated in the science of Marxism understand that the blame for the degradation of our water system lies nowhere in the swirling vortex of mainstream media misdirection, but with the economic system itself.

The water system was privatised in 1989 by the Thatcher government under the guise of ‘opening it up to investment’. However, the exact opposite has been the result. Hardly surprising for a regime whose leader declared that “society is dead”.

The death of society is often mistaken for the rise of the individual; in reality, it is no such thing, since we sink or swim together, whether we realise it or not. As the 16th-centry poet John Dunne so memorably put it: No man is an island.

The cause of the ‘death’ about which Thatcher opined so stupidly was illuminated long ago by Marxism. Engels’s explanation of the role of socialism captured the heart of the matter: a new society is needed in which the material conditions are created that allow people to function as true human beings; only then can humanity’s true potential finally be unleashed.

The ‘death’ of society, death by a thousand cuts, is what happens when capitalism is allowed to cling on, long past its sell-by date, turning each one of our essential life-support systems in turn into a transactable commodity.

Proceeding from privatisation to the point where private companies are sucking out dividends as debt, their surety underpinned by the ‘too necessary to fail’ status of their ‘investment’, is surely a sign of the utter inability of this economic system to offer anything useful to humanity.

The only way to fix our devastated water system, according to the University of Greenwich, is to renationalise the water utilities. The question of compensation – either to the shareholders or the public – is left completely out of the question.

Prison sentences for those individuals responsible for poisoning our waterways and accruing £53bn of debt would seem to us to be perfectly justified, but are unlikely to be delivered under capitalist law.

Business is business, after all, and that is just the way the system works.

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