Great Stink chokes Britain’s rivers

At the foot of a steep slope on an Oxfordshire dual carriageway, a small, unnamed stream winds through the trees. There is the sound of traffic on the A40, but the water here is clear. A few freshwater mussels can be seen among the pebbles and grains of golden sand. Sticklebacks move swiftly through the aquatic weeds. The water passes through a culvert, emerges from a concrete pipe and flows into Colwell Brook, where there is virtually nothing left alive.

In reality, there is only one form of life there: Sphaerotilus natans. This filament-like bacterium thrives in waters that contain little oxygen and lots of organic matter. It covers the riverbed for hundreds of metres. The strands sway lazily in the gentle current, but on the branch that Peter Hammond pulls out of the water, they clump together and form hanging masses that have the texture of snot.

Peter, who is a bioinformatician, explains to me that the colonies of Sphaerotilus provide a support on which other bacteria found in sewage sludge can proliferate. Colwell Creek is polluted by all the things 40,000 people have thrown away: bleach, detergents, food waste, medicines, microplastics, etc. The water is a bright orange-gray. “The River Windrush now consistently turns this colour during the summer” explains Ash Smith, a retired police officer. And it is not the only one: many other rivers have a similar story.” Colwell Brook flows into the Windrush and the Windrush joins the Thames, which flows into the sea. There the pollutants enter the great food chain.

A polluter-tester system

Despite the wind blowing on this beautiful April day, it is impossible not to notice the smell that grows as we approach the place, upstream, where two pipes emerge from the bank. From the first comes clear water, treated by the purification plant visible behind the fence erected on the other bank of the stream. The other pipe, located 20 feet upstream, discharges a thick and viscous brown liquid.

This is how the British water industry works: the regulator (in this case the Environment Agency) successfully tests treated water from one pipe while another pipe discharges human excrement 20 feet away. It is also important to note that the time taken for untreated sewage to be discharged is not measured by the regulator itself, but by Thames Water, the private company that is responsible for the discharges. The environmental devastation we are witnessing today will not be considered a serious pollution problem. For that to be the case, certain factors would have to be observed, such as the presence of dead fish; and in this case the fish had all been killed several years ago.

Bleach on the curtains

This situation is reminiscent of the Great Stench. The summer of 1858 was unusually hot. The Palace of Westminster, newly rebuilt after being devastated by fire in 1834, was almost deserted. At the time, London was the most populous city in the world and the wastewater of its more than 3 million residents was discharged directly into the River Thames. The curtains that covered the windows of both Houses of Parliament were soaked in calcium chloride, but in the offices where the fetid sludge stood, few could tolerate the stench.

Committee members abandoned their meetings, MPs and Lords finding it difficult to breathe in the miasma-laden atmosphere, and the Conservative government faced little opposition.

Today, the state of the nation’s waterways is once again an election issue. Far from favouring the current government, however, the issue is making Conservative voters aware that their party’s leaders, in power,

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