The venerable 195-year-old Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race constitutes an unlikely addition to Broken Britain’s 2024 list of shame. I am not highlighting the elitism and privilege that it represents, nor the incongruity of such global media interest. Instead, as someone who lives a stone’s throw from the River Thames in Hammersmith, west London, I’m thinking about how an event that used to make me feel lucky to live here is now a source of real international shame thanks to the waters it takes place on. It’s all gone a bit shit. Literally.

Before this year’s race, both crews were warned not to indulge in the traditional celebration of throwing the winning cox into the river because of the level of E. coli present. Why is it so high that we no longer let our dog frolic in the water where it laps the banks? Sewage. It is regularly pumped into the capital’s main artery by Thames Water – the company that is supposed to look after our most precious resource. Since 2020, Thames Water has pumped 72 billion litres of sewage into the Thames, according to one study.

Several Oxford rowers had been vomiting after training on our famous stretch of water, including captain Leonard Jenkins, who put it rather bluntly: “It would be a lot nicer if there wasn’t as much poo in the water.”

It is hardly surprising since Thames Water’s own data reveals it has been pumping sewage into the river for a total of 1,914 hours since the start of 2024 alone (it reveals hours, not litres).

For decades living here, I’ve listened to water companies claim the Thames is so much cleaner, certainly since it was declared “biologically dead” in the 50s. A clean-up did begin in the late 60s. There was great excitement about the first flounder to have returned, the first salmon, Dover Sole and even seahorses. This optimism soon took a hit, not least when David Walliams developed “Thames Tummy” after his 2011 charity swim. It sounds so much less threatening than E. coli.

Of course, this isn’t Thames Water’s fault. As they are quick to point out, it has rained a lot. I mean, how is Thames Water supposed to know that it might rain a lot in England?

The pitifully powerless OfWat regulator has consistently criticised Thames as only “one of” the worst-performing water companies. Thames’s greedy investors are refusing to supply £500m in future funding, apparently scared that the company might actually have to spend money to do something about this disgraceful state of affairs after Ofwat rejected Thames’ proposal to increase our bills by 40 per cent.

Even Michael Gove called the leadership “a disgrace”. The only answer must be some sort of re-nationalisation. If that can happen to rail companies, then surely water is even more important, not least to the health of the nation? What I don’t understand is why aren’t we all angrier – in Paris they would be blockading the Seine.

QOSHE - The state of Britain's rivers are a national shame after the Boat Race - Stefano Hatfield
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The state of Britain's rivers are a national shame after the Boat Race

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31.03.2024

The venerable 195-year-old Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race constitutes an unlikely addition to Broken Britain’s 2024 list of shame. I am not highlighting the elitism and privilege that it represents, nor the incongruity of such global media interest. Instead, as someone who lives a stone’s throw from the River Thames in Hammersmith, west London, I’m thinking about how an event that used to make me feel lucky to live here is now a source of real international shame thanks to the waters it takes place on. It’s all gone a bit shit. Literally.

Before this year’s race, both crews were warned not to indulge in the traditional celebration of throwing the winning cox into the river because of the level of E. coli present. Why is........

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