news analysis - sewage in the thames


Walking across London's Millennium Bridge in early August was a particularly unpleasant experience, as the River Thames was bright brown, with stinking sewage and dead fish floating right to the riverbanks. A million tons of sewage had been pumped into the river by Thames Water after a torrential downpour over London on 3 August, but even the use of the river as "safety valve" for the sewers did not prevent the flooding and pollution of low-lying areas near the Thames.

Rainwater had filled sewerage pipes and blocked the system so that the raw sewage could not reach treatment plants at Beckton in east London and Crossness in Thamesmead. A mix of solid faecal matter, paper, condoms, and even hypodermic syringes flowed for hours into the river after the storm. Currents and tides trap this disgusting and dangerous material, forming a "sewage slick" which may take three months to reach the sea at Southend.

The event was shocking enough, but afterwards the Environment Agency revealed that smaller-scale discharge of raw sewage happens routinely whenever the sewers cannot cope, 60 times a year on average. A total of 20 million tons of it is pumped into the river each year.

Ageing system
London's sewerage system is old, a brilliant pioneering piece of engineering for the 19th century, but wholly inadequate for the demands of the 21st. Designed by Joseph Bazalgette, Chief Engineer to the Metropolitan Commission for Sewers, and funded by taxation, it ended cholera and typhoid fever epidemics and the infamous "Big Stink" of the city's summers, by taking the sewage out of the Thames to treatment works. It established London as a safe, modern city. But now there is a very real danger that diseases such as these could return, unless action is taken urgently. The Marine Conservation Society has already warned that raw sewage poses a health problem on many of Britain's beaches.

The Environment Agency's technical manager John Goddard asked, "How can you have a major capital city with 20 million tons of sewage running through its main river every year when we are supposed to be setting an example to the cities in the developing world?"

RWE Thames Water, subsidiary of a private German company, wants to raise water bills to fund a giant 20-mile drainage channel under the Thames, which would cost an estimated £1 billion and merely dump the sewage further downstream, by-passing the London section of the Thames. The Environment Agency backs this ridiculous beggar-my-neighbour proposal, and reckons consumers would be quite happy to pay for it. Their spokesman said the alternative is to "dig up every street in London" to install separate rainwater and sewerage pipes.

Indeed. Right now the streets are being dug up to install new gas mains. Why not put in separate rainwater pipes at the same time? A long-term plan for modernising London's infrastructure, that is what we need — impossible while separate private companies are running the various public utilities.

Peter Bowler, a campaigner with the consumer group WaterWatch, denounced decades of inaction by government and the water industry. He said: "This was a disaster waiting to happen. Thames Water has known for ages that the sewer overflow system was not up to the job.

"This is a problem of a company run for profit rather than for the sake of customers or the environment. It all goes back to privatisation. If Thames Water can't run the system properly without fleecing the customers then the government should do what it did to Railtrack and take it back."