South of the River – down the sewers


Compass-SouthComment logo 2Our sewers are clogging up with fat. This was the key fact I gleaned from watching Watermen: A Dirty Business on the television this week.

It seems we are putting more and more waste fat down our sinks. Sinks are wonderful things, aren’t they? They swallow anything and once it’s gone down, it’s disappeared. Out of sight, out of mind, problem sorted.

The trouble is fat that might be liquid at cooking temperature, or even at room temperature, will solidify at lower temperatures once it gets down that pipe and into the sewers. The fat coats the pipes building up over time, reducing the flow and eventually blocking the pipe. In the meantime the fat provides a food supply for rats and worms.

Stand by for the public service announcement. Ahem. Don’t put waste fat down your sink, or nappies down your toilet come to that.

What to do with it instead? The Yorkshire Water website doesn’t have a lot to say on the subject. You can use it to make fat balls to feed to garden birds, and apparently there is a product that mops up the fat so you can compost it. When all else fails I mop up with kitchen towel and put in the black bin. I know it’s going to landfill, but this seems to be the lesser evil. I would welcome any expert advice – please leave a comment.

We take water services for granted until something goes wrong. We notice immediately if the tap water turns brown because of a leaky pipe, or there’s a smell in the street because a drain has blocked. And we want immediate action to put it right.

As humans we depend on water, we are made up of between 50 and 75% water. We live on the blue planet, with two thirds of the earth’s surface covered by water. Water gives life, but it can also take it away. Diseases and microbes live in water too.

Providing safe drinking water and safe removal and treatment of toilet waste was a major breakthrough in public health in this country. It stopped people dying from cholera and other waterborne diseases. If you want to know how significant that was go and read the ‘Guinea’ graves in Holbeck Cemetery, they tell the tales of various cholera outbreaks in the slums of Victorian Holbeck wiping out whole families.

It’s interesting that I used the phrase ‘public service announcement’ earlier. It seems to me that the provision of clean drinking water and the safe removal of waste is a public service. That ethos rang out from the comments of the frontline workers in the programme, despite the fact that the water companies are now in private hands. We in a period of political purdah, so I won’t take that line of thought any further today.

The other thing that struck me from the programme was the importance of communicating information effectively.

This problem of fat is a really big issue. A large part of your water bill goes on dealing with fat blockages. The clean up of one blockage they showed in central Manchester cost £1 million alone. They even have to clean out the huge vessels at the sewerage treatment works to get rid of the fat and keep them operating effectively.

I think the message would get through much clearer if you let the frontline staff deliver it, rather than leave it to the PR department. When they dig up the road to clear the blockage they should go and knock on people’s doors and show them what’s happened, explain why it’s happened and how to stop it happening again.

They should also think about the language they use in announcements. At one point the water was being shut off for few hours to allow a pipe to be repaired. The van went round warning people, but advised you to “draw water” now before it was shut off. Who says “draw”? It’s correct use of English, but you don’t hear it in everyday speech, not even in Lancashire where the programme’s filmed.

Jeremy Morton Aug13The ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign isn’t afraid to use words like ‘pee’ and ‘poo’. The water industry should take a leaf their book and use plain language to get important messages across.

I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.