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Dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria overshadow rowing event on the Thames


Now to London, which holds a famous race on the River Thames this weekend. Thousands of spectators will line the banks to watch the annual event. But there is more to worry about than who will win, as NPR's Lauren Frayer explains.


ANDREW COTTER: And Oxford are coming down - throwing everything out this year. It's going to be a narrow victory for Cambridge.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: The University Boat Race is the biggest rowing event on the River Thames, pitting Oxford against Cambridge.


COTTER: And again, all smiles.

ANTONY REYNOLDS: A fantastic race.

FRAYER: The tradition is for the winning team to splash into the water at the finish line. But this year, they're being urged not to because of dangerously high levels of E. coli bacteria. This is not a fluke of nature.


CLIVE MYRIE: Sewage spills by water companies into rivers and seas in England.

FRAYER: Government data out this week show raw sewage spills doubled here last year. Charities have cropped up across the U.K., with names like Surfers Against Sewage. Oxford's rowing coach calls pollution in the Thames - where his team is competing this weekend - a national disgrace. Environmentalists say this began back in 1989...


MARGARET THATCHER: The water privatization, I believe, will go very successfully indeed.

FRAYER: ...When then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher started privatising the U.K.'s public utilities. The country's water companies are now owned in part by the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, a Hong Kong billionaire and U.S. investors. Over the years, they've extracted tens of billions in dividends while skimping on improvements to Victorian-era sewage pipes. And in the case of Thames Water - the country's biggest water company, serving a quarter of U.K. households - they ran the company into the ground. Its chief executive, Chris Weston, told local TV that Thames Water is now broke and has to get money from somewhere. So...


CHRIS WESTON: The plans that we have put forward, which are very much in accordance with what customers are asking us to do, require an investment of around 20 billion pounds. And that would result in a bill rise of around 40%.

FRAYER: A 40% rise in customers' bills during the country's worst cost-of-living crisis since World War II. Feargal Sharkey is a former punk rock singer, who has become one of the U.K.'s most prominent clean water activists. And he is irate, telling the BBC...


FEARGAL SHARKEY: We have already provided all of the funding to water companies for 33 years for them to build a properly functioning sewage system. The question we should be asking is, where's our money gone? What has happened to it? And when can we get a refund?

FRAYER: The country's biggest water utility may have to be nationalized in the coming weeks.

And this weekend, instead of a victory splash after their race in the River Thames, rowers are being asked to visit a disinfecting station at the finish line.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.