A tale of two fluids
Things have changed so much since the Victorians left us with a tremendous legacy of infrastructure that their combined systems of drainage can no longer deal with the quantity and complexity of today's effluents (1) the changed pattern of rainfall (2) and the demands of an increased population who have expansive lifestyles and expectations. Neither can the systems cope with the increase in surface runoff, nor the impact of a decrease in permeable land area, precipitated by modern trends. (3)
A separation of rain and storm water from soil and wastewater drainage is long overdue. It is therefore surprising that Thames Water plc's (4) £4.2 billion Thames Tideway Tunnel, (5) now under construction, still follows the combined 'rule' and will be a conduit for a mixture of untreated soil and wastewater, rainwater and floodwater, all the way to Europe's largest sewage works at Beckton, where modernisation work is in progress.
Throughout the UK there are many systems of combined drainage, notably in coastal towns, and the problems associated with them surfaced in Wales, the South-West and Southern England during the January and February storms this year (2014). Companies such as South Western Water plc have invested in better treatment at the point of discharge from coastal towns and this probably accounts for the fact that a record number of 538 beaches in the UK are now graded as excellent. In most cases though, the combined drainage has been retained.
At times of heavy rainfall, overloaded sewers throughout the UK lead to a repetition of events that used to be even more common: discharges into local rivers that lead to contaminated Mackerel in the North Sea, poisoned shellfish on the Lancashire and Welsh coasts, more plastic detritus in the oceans and condoms and tar on beaches.
A straightforward separation of rainwater from effluent is not enough though. To deal with today's complex effluents – and because re-cycling is still not taken seriously - a more refined separation of soiled water, 'grey' water, industrial wastewater and restaurant or kitchen wastewater is better because it facilitates the recovery of waste heat and resources such as fats, and urea (6). The equipment already exists to do this at the first point of discharge from buildings and a network of smaller pipes could connect to de-centralised treatment plants.
As with many environmental problems though, the solution to rainwater and surface run-off is many solutions, (7) including green roofs and roof gardens , plant remediation, detention basins, infiltration ditches, swales, underground storage, permeable hard surfaces, reflux valves and so on. Unsurprisingly, the £3.5 billion profit exacted recently from consumers for its shareholders (8) and owners (9) by Thames Water plc was not channeled into these sustainable projects.
Without management systems in place for reliable water supply management (see Water Safety Plan, WHO) (10) a liquid asset quickly becomes a liquid liability of floodwater murk, sewage and wastewater combined. That silt and sediment in the floodwater, so problematic downstream (according to folk in Somerset), is a subtle reminder of the loss of soil fertility due to the upstream erosion of agricultural land and deforested uplands, while the sewage (11) is a not so subtle reminder that water borne pathogens lurk.
Instead of flowing to a combined drainage system, rainwater could remain the liquid asset that it is: an essential for life, a fuel and a power source, but certainly not a problem downstream. Apart from turbines that use water flow and hydraulic rams (12) that use water pressure, there is the possibility of splitting the two fluids of H2 and O to burn in a fuel cell and produce electricity, heat, and water as a 'waste' product. However these technologies require water that is free of chemicals, effluent and the detritus of floodwater. Industries such as agriculture, (13) aluminium, brewing, food processing and oil refining (14) rely on clean water too.
Because radical change in drainage and waste disposal is a major, infrastructural project, an approach to use tangentially is one informed by that eco-mantra: reduce, reuse and re-cycle. A reduction in the wastage, conspicuous consumption and exponential primary energy and power consumption that is part and parcel of the growth model for modern national economies, would mitigate the problems of water pollution, CO2 (15) and other 'greenhouse' gas emissions, waste heat, et cetera, and help to deal with the impact of extremes in weather such as torrential rainfall or periods of severe drought. (16)
With this approach, the onus is on the home-maker as well as the careerist decision-maker/politician, because almost everything we produce and use in the way of goods and services ends up as domestic consumption in one form or another, including the things we intensely dislike or find abhorrent for environmental and social reasons. This tale of two fluids therefore requires a reference to the home, where millions of people can either willfully or unwittingly compound the problems of keeping our fresh and saltwater resources in a fit state for all living things. It may seem to be an innocent, private and safe environment that supports domestic and family life but viewed through the prism of conserving and protecting water there are unresolved contradictions.
Starting with the human-ecological issues of cleanliness and hygiene, most household cleaning products and toiletries contain substances (17) that have an adverse effect on water courses, groundwater, aquatic life, water treatment plants and human health. Then there is the growing trade devoted to over-engineered, 'statement' or designer taps that promotes the look of the tap over and above its function or the quality of the water it delivers. The bog standard WC suite has fallen victim to the homage of appearance, which has become more important than its function, its technics for efficient use of water (18) or the condition of the above and below ground drainage systems that it is connected to. It should therefore not come as a surprise that people tend to look for someone dirt cheap who will 'make do' until their property is sold on rather than a qualified, knowledgeable person to work on-water services and sanitation.
The social imperative to own one's home at all costs and move up the property ladder, which has its roots in the insecurity generated by low pay and low state pensions, monetary devaluation, social control and speculation, is a driving force behind these contradictions because it produces asset-rich/income-poor households for whom it is tempting to forfeit standards of sanitation and jeopardize water quality standards for the sake of a couple of quid.(19) For example, against the advice of the Environment Agency over 3000 new houses were built on flood plains in the England and Wales in 2013 - served by combined drainage and accompanied by the problems that that entails. (19a)
Over the decades complaints trickled in to South Western, Southern, Thames and Yorkshire Water about unpalatable tap water but here too we hit a flood of contradictions. Into drains and water courses, people continue to dump acids, colouring agents, aggressive detergents, paints, solvents, waste mineral oil (20) and other substances into drains or water courses that pollute many times their own volume of water. The residues of pharmaceutical products and drugs end up at water treatment plants too, although these can be de-natured by boiling or through the cooking process. Yet a sizeable minority of the electorate voted for representatives who adopted the hastily and poorly conceived privatization of publicly-owned water utilities, and in the process, banished trained teams of water-tasters and locally-based 'turnkeys'. In the event of bursts, leaks or floods, when water quality was also compromised, these traditional 'turnkeys' would arrive on their bicycles within minutes to isolate the main valves. Re-structuring and modernising the industry has lengthened this response time to days, weeks and sometimes months.
Domestic consumers may consider themselves to be price 'sensitive', but if publicists can sneak an advertising slogan past them for bottled spring water, claiming it to be "...an affordable, portable, life-style beverage..." something really is awry. Per litre consumers now pay up to 600 times the cost of tap water for this life-style beverage that can contain higher levels of nitrates, organic material that festered in the sunlight of a shop window and levels of radioactivity that are not present in tap water (21). The same beneficiaries of this life-style beverage toss billions of 'empties' away each year (22) and fail to demand the best possible quality standards for tap water and the restoration of public drinking fountains that have fallen into a shameful state of disrepair. (23)
To fathom how we got ourselves into this quagmire it is worth looking a bit deeper. Colourless, odourless, tasteless and ubiquitous – water can appear to be a fairly mundane molecule, not one of the most important on Earth, with some unique characteristics and properties and special functions in all biological systems. Perhaps all those facts about water (23a) served up during rote learning that were intended to educate us, have also served to sanitise the science of water and to alienate us from the written word. Maybe the facts about water are so frequently quoted that they have lost their power. Then there is ye olde adage that used to circulate in the sludge of local party politics: "There are no votes in sewage." To avoid a surface critique, some reference to nihilism is needed too. It plays its part, because it is cultivated by the realities of abstract labour.
Concerning mains, fresh water and effluents there is another point to consider in relation to the public's apparent lack of interest in a real liquid asset of two fluids. The transport of water or effluent is not visible to the majority who live in urban areas - just like so many environmental problems. Perhaps sections of infrastructure should be made transparent – literally - with glass equipment. This is not too fanciful because UK taxpayers' have already paid for glass drainage in nuclear power stations, for precisely this reason - transparency.
The reverence for water sources promoted by ancient authorities was very likely a ploy to ensure their safe-keeping and to encourage vigilance. After all, if you pray to the River God you are more likely to closely observe the river in all its godly and devilish 'moods'. In our society though, we have relinquished direct control over our water, and its quality, and following commodification and privatisations, the modern contradictory relationship with water developed. This is one in which people know water is important yet behave otherwise and entrust the wrong people with its future, because of the social alienation arising from the commodification of our shared natural world and its resources (24). Nor does it help the conservation project if people are told that water is a 'natural' monopoly (25) and that any other view is mere sentiment, because this 'reality' is used to explain away a lot, including the loss of a diversity of water suppliers.
Nicolas Holliman, Spring 2014
(1) In the UK over 50 000 different chemicals are synthesised and many are discharged in effluents. Domestic, sink macerators are comparatively new in homes in the UK. They dispose of organic and kitchen waste but add to the mass and volume of effluent that rats thrive on. Formerly this waste was a resource for garden compost, pig feed and feedstock for glue manufacture.
(2) The author's research into rainfall patterns in West Yorkshire, starting with c. 19th records from Manningham Park, reveals changes, but at least one constant.
(3) Adapting farmland for industrial-scale production, asphalting and concreting over more land, paving over gardens, abandoning Alder, Poplar and Willow plantings in areas prone to flooding, felling trees, commodifying and reducing areas of natural forest and woodland that retain rainfall, canalising rivers and streams and diminishing the role of engineering in favour of service industries.
(4) As the largest water company in the UK, Thames Water has been involved in some other surprising ventures. In the author's area the company delayed addressing concerns about unpalatable tap water; officially tested for leaks just once in 17 years; prevaricated for years over metering and only ever directly invited customers to opt for metered supply once - by letter in 2014. For commerce there was method in their environmental madness. Businesses dealing in under-sink water filters of dubious efficacy sprang up. The bottled water industry boomed. Thames Water reaped the benefit from households in social housing.
(5) This was an opportunity to introduce co-axial drainage, which facilitates the separation of different effluents.
(6) During the Victorian period urine was treated as a resource and collected separately and shipped to chemical works and leather tanneries. The current sanitary arrangements in gents' toilets could still facilitate recycling because urine is separated from most other effluent.
(7) The Alhambra in Spain and the ancient city of Rome demonstrate some artful and low-tech approaches to managing water resources.
(8) Nicolas Holliman, "In Praise of Gargoyles" in: Plumbing jnl. of the Chartered Institute of Plumbing and Heating Engineering, No. 4 (1992) p. 23
(8a) Nicolas Holliman, "Hey Fontanero" in: op. cit. No. 4 (1990) p. 10
(8b) It is reputed that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon of antiquity were used to control the flooding of the Tigris and serve as a water retention device as well as a series of roof gardens.
(8c) The pension funds of British Telecom plc and other large companies.
(9) Macquerie of Australia (90%), the Chinese Government (8%) and Qatar State.
When RWE, the German utility company that specialises in building nuclear power plants, owned Thames Water, £2 billion profit was made in 2 years. This was augmented by the revenue from a large number of the poorest consumers in the Thames Water area who were prevented from switching to a lower cost metered supply because of their housing circumstances. RWE simply worked in concert with its predecessors, which made it such an attractive short-term investment, with no commitment to the long-term needs.
(10) According to Prof. Jamie Bartram, author of the U.N. Water Safety Plan commissioned by W.H.O., such a plan can deliver major health benefits to industrialised and less industrialised societies but it cannot be sub-contracted because it relies so heavily on internal and local knowledge.
(11) Diarrheal diseases account for the highest number water related deaths (WHO), mainly of children, and an inestimable number of unreported cases of short and long-term illness.
In total mass, soil/wastewater is the main form of urban waste in the UK, followed by building waste.
(12) Nicolas Holliman, "Clink, clink, clink ... clonk, clonk, clonk..." in: op. cit., No. 5 (1995) p. 10
(13) Agriculture is the major industrial consumer of clean water e.g. 10 to 20 litres of water are required to produce 1 kg of beef.
(14) The exploitation of shale oil and gas has contaminated ground water and wells, which poses a threat to the brewing industry's use of aquifers. The oil industry itself needs clean uncontaminated water too - 10 litres for every litre of petrol it refines.
(15) CO2 emissions cause acidification of the oceans and this in turn suppresses marine life e.g. molluscs including shellfish, O2 producers such as algae, fish.
(16) According to the March 2014 Report of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.), the number of people in cities throughout the world who experience regular water shortages is expected to rise from the current figure of 150 million to 1 billion by 2050.
(17) e.g. Dyes used in products designed to aesthetically freshen up a WC flush but which interfere with bacterial breakdown at the sewage works; foaming agents that create banks of smelly foam on canals, rivers or coastal waters and harbour bacteria; 1,4-dioxane, Sodium lauryl sulphate, ethylene oxide, phthalates, parabens, petrolatum that are suspected of being health risks.
(18) The waterless WC will become important, if only because flushing toilets accounts for 23% of water consumed in buildings, but its cumbersome appearance is not likely to appeal that widely. Coastal populations may have to adopt Hong Kong's solution and use piped seawater instead of mains water for flushing WCs et cetera. If they do, they will have to avoid the mistake made by the administration of Alcatraz prison where seawater for flushing damaged the prison's concrete structure.
(19) This is common among first-time buyers and those committed to the 'spirit' of property. It is also common amongst private landlords, as many a student will testify.
(19a) The housing market has functioned a bit like a 'subsidy', bolstering low rates of pay for home-owners, but not those living in social housing.
(19b) F. Engels, "The Housing Question" gives an early critic of home ownership as a form of social control.
(19c) The commitment of a mortgage is a reason that trade unions have not been enthusiastic about shorter working weeks and job-sharing.
(20) The National Rivers Authority attribute over 20% of yearly pollution incidents to the dumping, surface runoff and spillage of mineral oil.
(21) Albeit, below the upper legal limit of 10 Becquerels/litre set by W.H.O.
(22) Nicolas Holliman, "The Bottled Water Industry" Section 5: "The Use of Refillable Containers in the UK". London: Waste Watch Ltd., 1996, pp. 35-40.
A more recent estimate from 2013 puts the total for the UK at billions of bottles.
(23) Nicolas Holliman, "Toasting Adam's Ale" in: op.cit., No. 3 (1993) p. 18
e.g. the quantity of water on Earth is finite; it increases in volume when it freezes; pure water is tasteless and does not conduct electricity; its specific heat is high; it is not compressible even though it is a molecule of two gases; it is almost a universal solvent.
(23a) e.g. 70% of the ecosphere is estimated to be water, which adds up to an estimated 1.5 billion km3, but only 0.001% of this is directly useable as freshwater and the rest is seawater.
(24) The privatisation of the sea-bed was recommended to Margaret Thatcher's government by one monetarist professor on the grounds that it would lead to the more efficient use of resources, including the marine reserves and underwater national parks. The government plan to privatise publicly-owned forests and woodlands was abandoned temporarily, following widespread opposition in 2013.
(25) This claim begs the question: What defines an 'unnatural' monopoly if companies are getting bigger all the time through amalgamation, mergers, takeovers, cartels, price rings and so on, and in consequence, becoming less competitive?