George Monbiot tells us that Welsh rivers are being grossly polluted by the decisions of the water companies over what can flow into them. Well, OK, that’s fair enough, an important point to make. Fertiliser run off from farmers’ fields, sewage releases and overflows, all important things and we do indeed – given the public nature of the resultant problems – want to have this all dealt with.
The problem being that George doesn’t quite connect the dots:
I’m writing from the Welsh borders, where I’m supposed to be on holiday. It’s among the most beautiful regions of Britain, but the rivers here are dying before my eyes. When I last saw it, four years ago, the Monnow, a lovely tributary of the River Wye, had a mostly clean, stony bed. Now the bottom is smothered in slime and filamentous algae. In the back eddies, the rotting weed floats to the surface, carrying the stench of cow slurry.
A few days ago, part of another tributary of the Wye, the Llynfi, was wiped out by a pollution surge, for the third time in five years. Hundreds of trout, grayling and bullheads floated to the surface, while rare white-clawed crayfish crawled out of the water. In the Ewyas valley, I discovered, out of sight of any vantage point, that part of the Honddu, another beautiful little river, is being illegally quarried for loose stone. Ancient alders and ashes on its banks have been ripped out to make way for the digger.
The Wye itself is dying at astonishing, heartbreaking speed. When I canoed it 10 years ago, the stones were clean. Now they are so slimy that you can scarcely stand up. In hot weather, the entire river stinks of chicken shit, from the 10 million birds being reared in the catchment.
OK, all entirely fair. Then we get told this:
Similar disasters are happening across Britain. In the east of the country, the main issues are human sewage and water extraction. The privatised water companies, granted local monopolies on supply, extract vast dividends and salaries while not investing enough in pipes, sewage systems, reservoirs and pollution control. Instead of stopping leaks or discouraging overconsumption, they draw down the groundwater that feeds our rivers.
That may or may not be fair but let’s run with it. Note that Monbiot has not specifically said that the Welsh problems come from the privatised companies and their profits and dividends. But we all know how to write these sorts of pieces and we know what the reader is going to jump to because we’ve written it so that they do. It’s that pursuit of private profit which is causing the Welsh problems.
Except, of course, it isn’t. The watershed that George is talking about, the Monnow, the Wye, is under the control of Welsh Water:
In 2001 Welsh Water became a not-for-profit organisation with no shareholders. This differentiates it from all the other Water companies operating in England and restores it to the same organisational status as water supply utilities in Scotland and the pre-privatisation water supply undertakings in England.
Welsh Water is, effectively, an arm of government. It’s certainly run by that same set of the Great and the Good who run the rest of Wales. So it’s not actually those profit seeking capitalists dumping the chicken shit in the rivers, it’s the State.
This all according with the basic analysis of the water privatisation thingummy. When OfWat looked at it all a decade after it happened they noted that England got private, for profit, water companies, Wales a social enterprise (which then changed to that non-profit), Scotland a government owned company and NI stayed with the local councils. OfWat then measured performance, looking at three measures. Prices (lower were better), water quality (cleaner was better) and then environment (less chicken shit in the rivers was better). The outcome was that the less government was involved the better the performance. England best by all three measures, then Wales, Scotland and NI.
The privatised, for profit, companies did the best.
Or, as George Monbiot is pointing out, but cannot bring himself to say, the government is not your environmental friend.