A Clean Slate: Why UK Rivers Should Follow France’s Lead

polluted rivers
For 100 years swimming was banned in the river Seaine because of the levels of water pollution that could make people ill.

For the last 100 years swimming in the River Seine was banned because of the levels of water pollution, that’s about to change.

But as the 2024 Paris Olympics approaches, the once filthy River Seine is being transformed into a venue clean enough for swimming races. This Olympic makeover offers a model for restoring Britain’s polluted waterways.

For over a century, wastewater pouring into the Seine made swimming hazardous. But after years of infrastructure upgrades and €1.4 billion invested, Paris’ main artery will host Olympic triathlons. By 2025, public swimming sites will allow locals to dive in. “Seeing athletes compete safely will inspire public confidence,” says Deputy Mayor Pierre Rabadan.

The Seine’s revival tackled twin problems: industrial waste and antiquated drainage sending sewage into the river. Engineers built holding tanks preventing overflow from Paris’ “single-system” plumbing. Consequently, faecal bacteria levels dropped.

Here in the UK, our rivers are full of sewerage. Privatisation has failed. We are victims of profiteering water firms. Margaret Thatcher‘s 1989 sell-off gave away a natural monopoly to unaccountable companies only interested in shareholder returns.

Thatcher privatisation
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This was wanton plunder of our commons. A national disgrace, when our water was privatised in ‘1989, nine regional fiefdoms were created, these monopolies registered as private companies fattened on public subsidies who then borrowed on our natural resources. Once burdened with debt, their profits, near twenty billion quid, flowed abroad to foreign owners.

Ever since, the fat cats have neglected the pipes, losing half the water through leaks, there is more clean water lost than households ever get.

In 2020/21, Thames Water lost 93,000 Olympic pools worth of water daily. This is a country where crumbling Victorian sewers overflow into seas and rivers, causing mass beach closures. Yet firms impose hosepipe bans while wasting billions of litres.

Last year Thames Water poured 1.4 billion tons of untreated filth in the Thames, putrid poison for man and beast alike. Just last month a report showed there’s not a river in England you’d dare drink from or swim in, befouled by these same water company robbers. Polluting for profit, enriched by what should be public resources, land and rivers that once belonged to the commons now gone. It’s enough to turn your stomach, if the stinking rivers haven’t already.

This oligarchic model has neglected infrastructure investment and sustainable practices. As pipes corrode, leaks and pollution proliferate, along with shareholder payouts.

Water is an essential public good, not a commodity. Its stewardship requires democratic control, not market predation. The Seine’s rejuvenation shows public investment in sustainable infrastructure delivers results. If swimming in the Seine can become a reality, why not our Thames, Mersey and beyond?

The environmental abuse and raw deal imposed by privatisation must end. As Paris takes action, Britain sticks its head in the sand. But it’s not too late to restore our rivers. We must bring water back under democratic public ownership, take back our commons and follow France’s lead. With political will, even our filthiest rivers can run clean again. The health of future generations depends on it.

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