Singer Feargal Sharkey on the pollution of UK rivers
“Every time we were told we couldn’t do something, it made us 50 times more likely to do it,” punk star Feargal Sharkey said of the start of his career in Derry, Northern Ireland. . The city has been badly hit by the country’s violent sectarian conflict, with “people saying Derry bands don’t make records or write their own songs”. But in 1978, the Undertones defied The Troubles, releasing a punk classic, “Teenage Kicks”; a line which legendary DJ John Peel included as an epitaph on his grave.
Now living in London with his wife and children, the 63-year-old has taken a step back from the music industry, having been awarded an OBE for his services to the industry in 2019. Far from a quiet retirement, however, the memory of his beleaguered Catholic education is never far from Sharkey’s mind – and he has since become one of the UK’s most vocal campaigners for a different kind of underdog : the environment.
When we met last week at the Amwell Magna fishery in Hertfordshire, Sharkey’s disarming turns of phrase were in full swing. The scene at the country’s oldest fly-fishing club seemed bucolic: geese tending to their chicks on banks covered in forget-me-nots and weeping willows; but it’s also a landscape of sex, death and Darwinian struggle, the lyricist reminded me. “All you get is a bit of shag, then you’re dead,” he joked of ephemera ephemera.
He is equally blunt about the wider fate of Britain’s rivers: “The simple truth is that water companies have profited at the expense of the environment,” he said with the fervor of a hardened activist.
There is even a parallel, Sharkey believes, in Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s cavalier approach to post-Brexit Northern Ireland and the perilous state of Britain’s rivers – with unscrupulous politicians who don’t do not prioritize long-term well-being over “parochial politics” and immediate politics. Gain. “When the boss thinks he can stand up in public and lie,” Sharkey said, “what do you think the rest of middle management has done?”
According to water industry regulator Ofwat, water companies have stemmed water losses and kept bills low, while providing “excellent quality drinking and bathing water”. . Yet such self-congratulation does not stand up: in 2020, the United Kingdom was ranked last in Europe for bathing water quality, with rivers across the country harboring dangerous amounts of chemicals and sewage.
This is partly due to the UK’s outdated sewage system, partly because of runoff from agricultural fields and partly because water companies regularly dump raw sewage into waterways, Sharkey said. . Only 14% of English rivers are in good ecological condition, official figures show, and none are in good chemical condition. This has profound consequences for Britain’s already depleted biodiversity, with more than a tenth of the UK’s freshwater and wetland species. Endangeredfrom water voles to kingfishers.
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Sharkey is particularly concerned about the country’s chalk streams, which are drying up quickly. Formed from the skeletal remains of thousands of tiny phytoplankton that sank to the sea floor millions of years ago, the resulting carbonate rock provides “the best water filter in the world”. That’s great news for the rich wildlife these ecosystems support, Sharkey enthused, but it’s also a boon for water companies, who are able to suck large amounts from the southeast regional aquifers. at relatively low cost.
Even with this supply, London lacks clean drinking water due to rising demand, less rainfall and insufficient infrastructure to store groundwater. Too little investment is being put back into building new sewers or reservoirs, Sharkey believes, despite the fact that nine water and sewerage companies in England are believed to have made almost £2.8bn profit in 2020-21. “They profit from the environmental decimation. And this must stop.
A fly-fishing conservationist might seem like an incongruous calling for a former punk rocker, but his zeal for river protection is a product of his Northern Irish roots. Fishing was one of the extra-curricular activities offered by his school, and the singer recalls how, as a ten-year-old, he attended protests with his Catholic parents, who “went around in the middle of the highways between Belfast and Dublin, trying to start a huge fuss”.
“Go back that way [to the Troubles] is simply not an option and should never, ever be allowed to be part of a conversation,” he warned as concerns mounted over the future of the historic Friday peace deal. Saint due to the British government’s threat to change the post-Brexit Northern Irish Protocol. “Yet here we are, looking at the bloody cannon again, philosophically and potentially physically.”
The short-sighted policy is also aggravating the river’s crisis, Sharkey continued. “This government is running out of capacity,” he said. Brexit, Covid and the cost of living crisis have left “a team of people not necessarily up to the task”, unable to cope with anything else, including water pollution. And he accuses regulators, Ofwat and the Environment Agency (EA) of failing to enforce the law: “They’re running around like cockroaches because someone turned on the light.”
Any fines that have been imposed, he suggested, have been too small and sporadic to produce reform. Thames Water was fined a record £20 million in 2017 for pumping 1.9 billion liters of untreated sewage into the River Thames; but this year water companies in England are again under investigation by the EA and Ofwat for dumping untreated waste into waterways.
At a recent parliamentary committee hearing, Sharkey was appalled to see EA chief James Bevan say the regulator ‘deliberately failed to enforce’ the 2018 agricultural quality rules. water because the government told him not to. A spokesperson for the Department of the Environment said this was only the case for the first year after their introduction, to give farmers time to adapt. Yet Sharkey’s fears run deep: “I suspect that this government may be becoming the most deregulatory government, probably since World War II.
But he is not alone in his struggles. There is a growing movement calling for water management reform – ranging from national organizations such as Surfers Against Sewage to grassroots organisations. campaigns. Amie Battams, a young urban fly fisherwoman and YouTuber, whom Sharkey was hosting at the Amwell club the day we met, often tweets about the the sewage she witnesses is pumped out in London’s River Wandle in an attempt to save his beloved chalk stream.
In terms of policy goals, Sharkey and his fellow travelers would like to see “a bill making every director of these water companies personally liable”; a better system for measuring the volume of wastewater discharged; and, added Ali Morse of the Wildlife Trusts, an overriding goal on the health of our waters under the Environment Act.
There are signs of progress. In response to recommendations from a recent Environmental Audit Committee report, the government and Ofwat have accepted the need to prioritize long-term investment in the sewer system and nature-based solutions, opening up the way to an upgrade of England’s crumbling Victorian infrastructure.
“At the end of the day, all people really want from their fucking politicians is hope,” summed up the “Teenage Kicks” singer, now a father of teenagers himself. “I hope tomorrow will be a little better than today.”
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