2nd December 2022
How privatisation broke Englandís water system and polluted our rivers
Water is essential to life; that much we all know. Yet it is also a key marker of public health, levels of poverty and inequality and the state of the global environment.
In the global north, access to clean water and sanitation is something that marks out the developed world from the developing one. Running water, toilets and modern sewer systems are seen as a human right. But, globally, 2.2 billion people do not have access to clean drinking water at home, and 2.3 billion have no access to toilets or latrines, according to Oxfam.
So being able to turn on the tap and drink clean water, or flush our toilets and expect the waste to be treated in a modern, efficient way that presents no risk to public health or the environment, is seen as a public right in the west. Yet in England, one of the few countries in the world where water is fully owned by private companies, there is a stench of something going very wrong with the water industry.
Thirty-three years after it was privatised, with the promise that we would all be shareholders in our own water, the Guardian reveals this week how ownership and control has passed from public hands into a complex network of opaque financial investment firms, private equity, businesses lodged in tax havens and pension funds, where countries from the US to Canada, Australia, China and Qatar all have a stake in Englandís water.
At the same time the infrastructure which ensures water in England is clean and safe to drink, that our rivers and seas are not polluted by sewage, and that the system can meet the future challenges of a heating planet, appears to be crumbling from a lack of investment.
The Guardian first started reporting on the scandal of English privatised water firms treating rivers and seas as a sewage dump back in 2020. We reported for the first time, using environmental information requests, how water firms were using rivers to dump wastewater, with a whistleblower identifying the the frequent and routine nature of discharging untreated effluent into waterways.
Since then water firms have become more open about what they are doing, but what has emerged is a scale of sewage discharges which reach almost three million hours worth a year.
Rivers are suffering from chemical and biological pollution. Not one river, from the River Thames and the River Avon down to the smallest of tributaries, are classified as being in good chemical or biological health. In other words, pollution is so great that no river is as close to its natural state as possible.
This week, as we expose the global web of financial instruments, private equity, businesses, billionaires and pension funds sucking billions from this failed system, we ask: how can these companies be held accountable for the ongoing pollution of the environment, and the risk to public health from a water and sanitation system which is not fit for purpose?
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