Editor's newsletter: 'Sorry' isn't going to cut it - water firms must clean up their act

Sewage is dumped thousands of times a year into British rivers and seasSewage is dumped thousands of times a year into British rivers and seas
Sewage is dumped thousands of times a year into British rivers and seas | NationalWorld/Kim Mogg/Adobe Stock
Anger is growing over the UK's sewage crisis, and an apology through gritted-teeth will do nothing to appease the sense of outrage

In Wild Isles, his latest series for the BBC, Sir David Attenborough does not shy away from confronting the human impact on Britain’s environment - putting to one side a ‘censorship’ row over the final episode focused on our destruction of nature being hidden away on the iPlayer.

Towards the end of the episode looking at the UK’s freshwater environments, the 97-year-old broadcaster makes a stark statement about water pollution. “All wildlife, to some extent, is dependent on fresh water,” he says. “But here in England, every single river is polluted. Run-off from farming and dumping of human waste causes algae to bloom. This reduces oxygen, chokes the plants and degrades the rivers on which our wildlife depends.”

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Over the past year, the state of Britain’s rivers and coastlines has become a national scandal. It’s ironic and unfortunate that a growing appreciation for pursuits like wild swimming and bodyboarding has coincided with the increasingly disgusting state of our waterways and beaches.

From once thriving rivers being declared “ecologically dead” due to levels of E-coli and effluent, to the fact that sewage was dumped over 21,000 times into UK swimming waters last year, our environment reporter Isabella Boneham has been covering the issue on an almost daily basis, as more and more jaw-dropping stories emerge.

This week, industry body Water UK, which represents 25 water companies, said the public was “right to be upset” about the current quality of the country’s rivers and beaches, and admitted “more should have been done”.

Ruth Kelly, the new chair and mouthpiece for the sewage-spewing water firms, and a former Labour cabinet minister, said: “The message from the water and sewage industry today is clear – we are sorry.”

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But saying ‘sorry’ isn’t going to cut it - and neither is a plan to invest £10 billion into the modernisation of sewers. Especially when that investment is likely to come from hiking our water bills. Anglian Water have wasted no time in signalling a likely increase in annual bills for their customers.

As our data reporter Aimee Stanton summarises in her explainer, despite being responsible for dumping raw sewage into England’s rivers and seas more than one million times over the last three years, shareholders at major water companies received an average of £1.6 billion in dividend payouts each year between 2010 and 2021 – adding almost £70 onto every customers’ annual water bill. This is according to peer-reviewed research by the University of Greenwich.

The public’s anger with this act of corporate vandalism is growing. It’s the sort of thing you might expect to see in an Attenborough documentary about a third world country, rather than a member of the G7 - and the profit-laden, bonus-paying utility firms must take responsibility.

Have you been affected by pollution at your local river or beach? We’d like to hear your experience of the issue - email me at [email protected]

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📺 Need some TV inspiration? In this week's episode of our Screen Babble podcast, Kelly recommends Mood, Alex reviews Paramount+ thriller No Escape, and Steven remembers sword and sandals epic Rome - while you can check out the Weekend Watch mini-episode for more viewing tips.

🏖 Have an enjoyable weekend - and if you are making the most of the weather, here are the beaches that are still safe for a paddle.

This is an abridged version of our NationalWorld Today newsletter - you can sign up for free to read the full version.

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