Access to safe water and sanitation is one of the most important development building blocks any country can achieve. Without it, health, education and economic outcomes are compromised. Globally, 300,000 children under five die every year from diarrhoeal disease caused by poor sanitation, poor hygiene and unsafe drinking water. In my time working for Save the Children around the world, I saw time and again the devastating impact that poor sanitation had on communities from Yemen to Bangladesh.
It seems crazy that in twenty-first century Britain, people are getting sick from sewage. But for many who enjoy our sea and rivers, it is becoming all too common an experience. According to figures obtained by the Labour Party, between 2016 and 2021, there were 74,450 spill events into our seas and rivers by Southern Water. This equates to a shocking average of a sewage spill taking place every 43 minutes over a 5-year period.
The incompetence doesn’t stop there. This has been perhaps the driest summer any of us can remember, and yet the number of leaks in the Southern Water network means that more than 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools’ worth of water go down the plug hole every day.
The impact of sewage dumping on coastal communities like ours is devastating. When water companies dump sewage, they endanger public health, poison our environment and undermine our local economy. Our beautiful coastline is the bedrock of our tourism and fishing industries, and just as both are emerging from the pandemic, this is the last thing that they need.
Last week it happened again, with a sewage discharge in Bexhill closing our beaches along the coast once again. While water companies continue to pollute, this Conservative government and our Conservative MP voted down Labour’s October 2021 attempt in parliament to stop this harmful practice. For too long water companies have been allowed to get away with it. In the last five years, water bosses have received “performance related” bonuses while overseeing a 27,000% increase in the number of “monitored discharge hours” (sewage dumps), and failing to invest profits back into outdated infrastructure. And deep cuts to the Environment Agency haven’t helped either, with Tory leadership contender Liz Truss overseeing millions of pounds of cuts.
This crisis needs to be recognised for the national emergency that it is, and both the government and regulators have a duty to heed Labour’s warnings and act without delay.
This week, our own Conservative MP appeared on BBC South East Today saying that we can’t sort this overnight and need a long-term, costed plan. I agree, but her party have been in power for twelve years and the problem is only getting worse. There is no plan, and the very tool we have to crack down on this outrageous misconduct, our regulator, has been cut to the bone.
Labour will do whatever it takes to put a stop to this disgraceful practice. It starts with enforcing unlimited fines, holding water company bosses legally and financially accountable for this negligence and toughening up the regulation loopholes that allow the system to be abused. It cannot be right that companies continue to pay huge bonuses and dividends while failing in their first duty: to ensure safe, sustainable water supply and sanitation.
With sewage dumping, as with so many issues, this Conservative government are missing in action. As we approach a difficult winter ahead and the cost of living crisis, record NHS waiting lists and rising inflation create the perfect storm, I have found it staggering to see our two Conservative candidates for Prime Minister spend all summer too busy fighting among themselves to turn attention to the scale of this crisis and make a plan. I know so many in our community are worried sick about making ends meet, or getting an ambulance if the worst happens. Whichever one wins, one thing is clear: the more time we give the Tories, the more damage they will do.
Helena Dollimore is Labour’s parliamentary candidate for Hastings and Rye www.helenadollimore.com.
Image Credits: Geoff Wilson .
First published on RyewNews by Helena on 25/08/2022.