The view from the window of billionaire Li Ka Shing’s Hong Kong mansion takes in the azure swimming pool in his landscaped gardens and the South China Sea beyond.
A team of staff will ensure that the pool waters remain crystal clear and remove any insects or dirt that might be dangerous to his health.
Sadly, the Chinese tycoon known as ‘Superman Li’ for his extraordinary business prowess does not appear to apply the same exacting standards to other people’s water.
For 9,500 miles from his home, the UK utility company Southern Water – in which he has a significant stake – has been pumping billions of litres of sewage on to our beaches.
Last week, details of this and other horrendous acts of pollution were revealed in a heated debate in Parliament when an attempt was made by water companies to place a legal obligation not to pollute rivers.
The view from the window of billionaire Li Ka Shing’s Hong Kong mansion takes in the azure swimming pool in his landscaped gardens and the South China Sea beyond
For 9,500 miles from his home, the UK utility company Southern Water – in which he has a significant stake – has been pumping billions of litres of sewage on to our beaches
According to the Environment Agency there were 403,171 sewage releases into English rivers or seas last year.
A group of 22 Tory MPs rebelled against the Government over its failure to act and Boris Johnson’s breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he is about to preach to the world at COP26 on environmental standards.
My equivalent of Superman Li’s stunning vista is the Solent and the choppy waters off the Isle of Wight.
There may be no swimming pool, but I have access to a sandy bay where the water is emerald-green on a summer’s day.
The area is a summer magnet for young families, paddleboarders, kayakers – and hardy swimmers at all times of year.
However, the water is unsafe to swim on many days. Southern Water manages nearby sewage tanks that overflow after heavy rain.
Instead of building additional sewage storage facilities the company directs effluent into seawater.
This is a dangerous situation because of the frequency with which it happens.
In July, Southern Water was fined £90 million for dumping into the sea billions of litres of raw sewage – enough to fill 7,400 Olympic-sized swimming pools – with a judge saying it had shown ‘a shocking and wholesale disregard for the environment, for precious and delicate ecosystems and coastlines, for human health, and for fisheries and other legitimate businesses that depend on the vitality of the coastal waters’.
According to the Environment Agency there were 403,171 sewage releases into English rivers or seas last year
A group of 22 Tory MPs rebelled against the Government over its failure to act and Boris Johnson’s breathtaking hypocrisy, given that he is about to preach to the world at COP26 on environmental standards
He added that the firm had a history of criminal activity for its ‘previous and persistent pollution of the environment’.
As the world’s 30th richest man with an estimated fortune of £23 billion, Li Ka Shing – one of a number of foreign shareholders in Southern Water – has the power, influence and resources to sort this out.
Although he runs the world’s second-biggest private charitable foundation (after Bill and Melinda Gates), he has had nothing to say publicly about Southern Water endangering public health in England.
In July’s court case, evidence included details of how Southern Water intentionally poured untreated sewage into seawater for nearly six decades to avoid financial penalties or the cost of upgrading and maintaining infrastructure.
The court was told that the firm, with operating profits of £213 million in 2019, covered up its actions with ‘very significant under-reporting’ of the number of illegal pollution spills.
Southern Water’s accounts show that by use of smart accounting, shareholders received £150 million last year while directors of the Jersey-based consortium that has owned the company since 2007 have continued to enrich themselves.
I first became aware of the Isle of Wight problem in August when an anxious neighbour asked me if I realised that my children – along with everyone else happily paddling, crabbing and messing around in rockpools in Seagrove Bay – might be exposed to highly polluted water.
She explained that the unusually dry summer had caused the local sewage system to become overwhelmed. Storm overflows were used to allow a mix of rainwater, filtered sewage, and storm water to flow directly into seawater.
This map by The Rivers Trust shows the locations where sewage can enter local rivers. The trust advises people not to enter the water immediately downstream from these discharges. They also recommend that they avoid overflows (brown circles) especially after it has rained.
Surfers Against Sewage has created this map as part of its Safer Seas and Rivers Service. It tracks combined sewage overflows and pollutant risk forecasts and monitors water quality at over 400 locations throughout the UK.
Some pipes discharge their toxic contents right by the shore while others carry it out to sea. However, they often leak closer to the beach.
The Environment Agency monitors the storm outlet system as a last resort. It is not recommended for use other than in very rare cases.
Such behaviour was at the core of Southern Water’s court case for repeated breaches of environmental regulations. Instead of properly treating sewage, the firm allowed storm tank to be filled and turned septic.
Southern Water attempted to cover up the scandal even more. Environment Agency investigators only discovered the dirty truth when high levels of faecal contamination in shellfish from the Kent coast was detected.
The company was publicly disgraced. Did it reform? It didn’t.
Southern Water bosses deliberately misreported data on the performance of their wastewater treatment works, even though they were aware that the authorities were investigating.
Ofwat, the water watchdog, was forced to fine them. Official data last week shows that the company dumped combined wastewater and sewage in 57 locations within 24 hours, including several on the Isle of Wight.
Southern Water has variously blamed the UK’s Victorian sewage system, climate change (for an increase in rainfall) and urban development for reducing the amount of land available to allowing rainwater to soak away naturally.
It states that stormwater has been filtered and is not the same thing as raw sewage.
Laughably, the company claims to have adopted a ‘pioneering approach’ to reducing spillages, listing various impressive-sounding steps to reduce outflows.
All this would be great – if only Southern Water could be trusted to carry out the work. Its track record of deceitful and wilful negligence does not inspire confidence.
Meanwhile, most disingenuously, the firm, which is majority-owned by the Australian investment bank Macquarie, seems to think the 4.7 million customers to whom it provides wastewater services should be grateful that the sewage is not flowing down the streets, saying it pumps dirty water into the sea ‘to protect people’s homes and businesses, schools and hospitals’.
Far away in Hong Kong’s Deep Water Bay, Li Ka Shing is shielded from the consequences – the personification of the folly of allowing Britain’s critical infrastructure to be controlled by foreign tycoons and overseas private equity groups.
Other countries, like the US and France would never make the same mistake. They wisely banned overseas ownership in their public utilities.
We have a Prime Minister who says his top priorities include creating a clean environment, so Southern Water’s abject record stands out like a ugly stain.
It has had more than enough time – and warnings – to clean up its act. If it can’t or won’t, perhaps the answer is to bring it under the ownership of consumers who could share any profits rather than foreign tycoons treating it as cash cow while happily pumping sewage into our rivers and beaches.