Britons should be “less squeamish” about drinking reprocessed sewage water, and stop treating the resource as a “free good”, the head of the Environment Agency has said.
It comes as water companies have been accused of dumping sewage into rivers and the sea over the last few weeks, triggering warnings about contaminated water.
There have been growing calls to strip water company bosses of their multimillion-pound bonuses after outrage at how much sewage is being pumped into the sea.
Writing in The Sunday Times, Sir James Bevan, head of the Environment Agency, said that people in the UK should be “less squeamish” when it comes to drinking water that has previously been mixed with sewage, as water companies plan to recycle water directly from flushed toilets.
Sir James says this type of water is “perfectly safe and healthy, but not something many people fancy”.
He added we should “change the way they think about water”, and “treat it as a precious resource, not a free good”.
“We need to remember where it comes from: when we turn on the tap, what comes out started in a river, lake, or aquifer,” he wrote.
“The more we take, the more we drain those sources and put stress on nature and wildlife.
“If we are going to get there, we are all going to have to think differently. Some of these measures will be unpopular, so future governments will need to show political will.”
Sir James’s comments come as a Channel 4 News investigation found more than 870 water pipes in the UK could be dumping sewage without permits.
More than 200 of those have been confirmed to be in use by water companies, the broadcaster said.
The Environment Agency told the programme: “Water companies have rightly been condemned for allowing far too many sewage spills, and we are holding the industry to account on an unprecedented scale.”
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs added: “We are the first government to take action to tackle sewage overflows. We have been clear that water companies’ reliance on overflows is unacceptable, and they must significantly reduce how much sewage they discharge as a priority.
“This is on top of ambitious action we have already taken, including setting targets to improve water quality which will act as a powerful tool to deliver cleaner water, pushing all water companies to go further and faster to fix overflows.”