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Note to Bureaucrats: We are not stupid!

Updated: Apr 10

How different government departments’ blinkered policies fail to embrace behavioural change to protect the environment and slow climate change

Regular readers of this blog will know that we have an outstanding FOI Request with Translink, who are now working on v2 – because of a typo on my part...

The Open Water swimming group Brompton Belles and Beaux Dippers have just received a response to their FOI Request regarding the Brompton Road and Stricklands Glen storm and wastewater facilities. The response makes for interesting reading and, taken together with Translink’s response to ours so far, points to a fundamental failure by local government entities to take on board that the world is changing rapidly and that the status quo needs to change.


Let’s have a look at BB&B’s questions (in bold) and NI Water’s response (in italics). My thoughts are in normal font, at the end of NI Water’s response to questions 2 to 6.

1.     Pumping Station Dates of Commissioning:

a.     Brompton Road Wastewater Pumping Station – February 2022

b.     Stricklands Glen: February 2023

2.     Date of first discharge of storm/wastewater from Brompton Road

3.     Dates of all subsequent discharges

4.     Volume of each discharge event

5.     Time and Duration of each discharge event


Summary of Answers to 2, 3, 4, and 5: (I have omitted non-relevant comments in the interest of conciseness)

“To monitor and record spills and discharges, Event Duration Monitors (EDMs) are being installed across NI Water’s wastewater network […].

Currently NI Water has 279 Storm Overflows with EDMs installed. We need to verify that the EDMs deployed so fare are accurately recording what is happening on the ground and properly supported before we can share the results. We aim to have information available to share from our first phase of EDMs in June 2024. […]

NI water does not keep an actual measured or recorded (i.e., non-predictive) record of the number of occasions, duration, or actual volumes of releases into public waterways from its sewerage system. […]


Releases occur when the sewers are at or exceeding their capacity due to heavy rainfall and large volumes of storm water run-off [are] entering the combined sewer system. Overflows then operate in wet weather and there are spills into waterways […]. Primarily NI Water needs solutions in place to deal with the excess volume of wastewater during times of heavy rainfall. The most effective solution is to stop storm water getting into and overwhelming our combined sewer system by separating and diverting it elsewhere. […]


6.     The mechanism (if any) through which sea swimmers were alerted to each event and to potent[ial?] hazards to health in the 48 hours following each discharge event?

As above, this information is not held by NI Water as it does not fall within the remit of the Company […] The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has responsibility for sampling, analysing and communicating the results of bathing water quality […]


From NI Water’s statement in red I conclude that Northern Ireland’s water treatment system does not and cannot separate domestic wastewater and sewage from road runoff, resulting in treatment plants being overwhelmed during periods of heavy rain. To its credit, NI Water has actually admitted that they know what needs to be done to fix the situation.


The true scandal here and one that has been ignored for decades is that the UK uses a truly archaic (Victorian?) system that commingles the environmental water run-off (i.e. what runs into street gutters during rainfall) and domestic sewage into a single pipe and sends that lot to the local sewage treatment works. Every other civilised country in the world separates the two from the outset by carrying the two flows in separate pipes, with the environmental runoff going into rivers and domestic wastewater being channelled to a water treatment plant. When I spoke to friends in Germany, France and Italy to confirm how domestic wastewater is treated there and described UK practice, the reaction was incredulity: “That’s a third-world state of affairs”, a German friend noted.


I suspect the reason for this mess is that the private equity investors who bought the UK water companies during privatisation back in the 1980s valued shareholder returns over investment in infrastructure. Government policy resulted in 40 years of chronic underinvestment in infrastructure. The rest of the First World by laid separate pipes while the UK dithered.

On a local level, even though NI Water is a Government-Owned Company (GoCo) it too neglected updating its infrastructure – probably because of budgetary pressures - with the result that bathers in Belfast Lough swim in sh!t after periods of heavy rainfall. 


Responding to our FOI request NI Water confirmed its current practice is to dump excess volumes of sewage and rainwater run-off without keeping any records. Once the aforementioned EDMs are installed, only times and duration of dumps (in every sense of the word) will be recorded. Conveniently, no records of dump volume will be kept in the future. Furthermore, NI Water provided no indication that the company communicates dump events to DAERA - who is responsible for alerting swimmers. How shortsighted is that?

These local factors make up the second scandal: NI Water obviously thinks the public are stupid. We know it has almost 2,400 sewage overflows. We also have media reports that it dumped 3 million metric tons of human excrement "across the Belfast metropolitan area" in 2021 - and a total of 7 million across the whole province! What a sh!t show...

I couldn't really visualise how much excrement that is so I tried to visualise it: a 40t articulated lorry carries 28t of freight. Put another way, to carry 3 million tons of sewage ryou need more than 107,000 lorries. Each lorry is 16.5m long. Parked end-to-end those lorries would cover almost 1,800km of road. That's 11 rows of stinky lorries parked end-to-end and side-by-side on the A1/M1 from Belfast to the centre of Dublin!

But I digress. NI Water's wastewater pumping station holding tanks have a known volume. They all have indicator floats to show their fill level so NI Water can tell when they need emptying. All NI Water would need to do is record and add up the volume of sewage that is being released during each dump. Its Event Duration Monitors are rather pointless: we don’t care about the duration of each sewage dump as much as we care about the volume of sewage that is being dumped. One cannot help but conclude that NI Water is deliberately obfuscating its sewage dumping activities because if the public knew how much sh!t is being dumped into public waterways we’d all be on the barricades.


There is no easy solution to these problems. As long as the UK water infrastructure is not fundamentally rebuilt to separate rainwater runoff and sewage at source, local open water swimmers must be prepared to swim in truly gross liquid after heavy rainfall. We all are paying the price for 50 years of underinvestment by UK water companies. Fixing the problem entails digging up every street in the country to lay two separate pipes. That will cost taxpayers or shareholders billions. When we combine the reluctance to start the rebuilding process with a pronounced lack of vision by the UK and devolved governments, we end up with dying waterways – anyone been to Lough Neagh lately?


NI Water’s refusal to follow through on its realisation that its operations need to change fundamentally mirrors Translink’s failure to understand that it must embrace multi-modal transport forthwith and allow bicycles on trains before 9:30 (as outlined in an earlier blog).

To make things even worse, Translink’s behaviour is condoned by the Department of Infrastructure - which funds Translink and has millions of unspent funds allocated to Active Travel.

The recurring theme here is Stormont's ostrich strategy for dealing with pressing problems. Write to your local councillor, your MLAs and your MPs and demand change.

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