University of Sussex Students' Newspaper

Southern Water Hikes Bills Amidst Ongoing Pollution Controversy

Amina Daniel

ByAmina Daniel

May 13, 2024
Image: Amina Daniel

After increasing water bills earlier this year, Southern Water has now unveiled plans for an alarming 44% annual increase from 2025 to 2030. This places an unavoidable burden on consumers across the region who have no choice but to rely on Southern Water, and are forced to shoulder the costs of rectifying the inadequacies of a water system that has been neglected for decades.

For years, UK water companies have faced criticism for their rampant pollution of natural waterways, a situation which has recently become increasingly dire. Among these, the River Ouse in Sussex stands out as one of England’s largest and most contaminated rivers, primarily due to the continuous discharge of sewage by Southern Water. The company’s yearly release of billions of litres of raw sewage into local rivers and seas has led to high contamination of harmful substances, including dangerously elevated levels of E. coli.

The Badger spoke to local fisherman Neal, whose connection to the River Ouse spans back to 1986. He described the ongoing struggle as fishermen are pushed out of work due to the extent of river pollution. Fish numbers are dwindling rapidly, while certain species are contaminated to the point they can no longer be sold for consumption. Neal pointed to Southern Water as the problem – “big businesses aren’t thinking about the fishermen, or the environment. They’re just thinking about how much money they’re going to make.”

The restructuring of the water supply system under Margaret Thatcher’s government has drawn attention to the behaviour of certain large corporations for years. The privatisation of water companies in 1989 shifted control from public to private hands, meaning that the newly privatised Southern Water became reliant on investments from shareholders to function. This resulted in decades of cost-cutting and underinvestment in water supply infrastructure, as Southern Water prioritised creating enough surplus profit to pay huge shareholder dividends and attract further investment. In the meantime, consumers are left with an inadequate water system, as Southern Water resorts to ever increasing sewage outflows to cope with volumes of water beyond its infrastructural capabilities.

In Sussex, multiple movements such as Love Our Ouse have emerged to combat water pollution. The Badger spoke to Matthew Bird, a group lead and mayor of Lewes, who describes the movement as ‘working to learn, celebrate, and act on issues surrounding the Ouse’. Fuelled by frustration over Southern Water’s inaction, Love Our Ouse campaign for recognising the River Ouse as a legal entity with inherent rights. This is based on the international Rights of Nature movement, as people across the world advocate for a shift away from understanding nature as nothing more than a market resource to be exploited for profit. They posit that just as corporations have legal rights, waterways such as the River Ouse, which is central to many forms of life, culture and relationships, deserve the same recognition.

Matthew emphasised that the system we have at the present is fundamentally flawed, asserting that “it doesn’t matter how much greenwashing or what little bits of money come forward for different things, the current system does not work.” Investment in improving water supply infrastructure is urgently needed, but as Southern Water realises this, it also attempts to pass costs onto consumers through exorbitant bill increases, prioritising corporate profit over public and environmental wellbeing.

The Love Our Ouse movement, as well as similar rights of nature movements worldwide, challenge the profit-driven approach of privatisation. The future lies in a move toward community ownership, prioritising humans and nature over making unnecessary levels of profit. Whether resisting unfair bill hikes, or advocating for a fundamental shift in recognising and respecting the rights of natural entities, the movement stresses the necessity to hold large corporations to account in the struggle that involves us all.

If you’re interesting in getting involved, or simply learning more about the situation, check out the Love Our Ouse website:

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