As the floods inch ever closer up your garden path, threatening to lap over your door, there’s a reasonable chance that it’s not just good old H20 that’s going to ruin your carpet. As drains and sewers burst, overwhelmed by the sheer volume of water, there have been reports of raw sewage bubbling up from under the ground and contaminating the floodwater. For many people living along the Thames and in the Southwest, there's a very real threat that global warming will break into your house and take a shit in your living room.
The rivers of turds flowing through Britain were deemed important enough for the Whitehall emergency committee known as Cobra to convene over last week. On Thursday, they were having grave discussions about the return of the dissident Irish terror threat, after letter bombs were sent to army recruitment centres. But the day before, they had been fretting over the sewage and its health implications, which could apparently produce a spike in diarrhoea and the winter vomiting bug.
I decided to head the Buckskin estate in Basingstoke, currently partially submerged, to see if your home being flooded with raw sewage is as disgusting as it sounds.
The estate was built in the 1960s as an overflow for London but when we turned up, the only things overflowing were the drains. It’s the type of estate that Center Parcs seem to have modelled their holiday villages on – a semi-pedestrianised, self-contained commuter-community of bungalows and terraces. The whole place was on a gentle hill and the buildings at the bottom were either under a few inches of water or looked as if they were about to get swallowed up in the next deluge. When I visited, the weather was fine but everyone was fearing an onslaught of rain forecast for the next day.
The council had dotted porta-loos around the estate in an attempt to stop people flushing their toilets because every time they did, they were helping fill the sewers which were flowing into the streets. Bad as that sounds, it's probably preferable to what the residents of Muchelney in Somerset had to put up with. It took their council three weeks to arrange chemical toilets after septic tanks got flooded, so people were reduced to shitting in plastic bags. Also, in rural areas, there's obviously been a ton of farm animal crap to contend with.
One of the main roads of the estate had turned into a lake and was surrounded by ominous warning signs about how the water had been contaminated.
Thames Water are refusing to take any responsibility for the estate's burst sewers, saying that the floods are nothing to do with them, so the council are trying to deal with the situation. I spoke to this council worker, who was operating the tanker that was greedily sucking up the shit soup like a coprophiliac Henry the hoover.
“We take it to the sewage works on the other side of Basingstoke. It’s mostly rainwater but it’s coming up through the sewers and drains and everywhere,” he said. “We’re taking 30,000 litres at a time and we’re doing it all day and night. 24/7. At this rate, it’ll be 365 days!”
After conferring with a colleague, he said they had sucked up over a million litres of water since they started on Saturday. Depressingly, the level hadn’t dropped.
“The sewage backs up and it’s got nowhere to go. We’ve got divs in here still flushing their chains. They’ve been told not to but they’re still doing it,” explained his colleague, pointing me in the direction of an overflowing drain.
As I neared the drain, an information leaflet that the council had handed out floated in the water. I felt like it was telling me to turn back, like a human corpse made into a scarecrow by the side of the road warning of trouble ahead.
I carried on regardless and checked out the drain the council worker had talked of. Sure enough, sanitary towels and frayed toilet paper were spilling out, emerging from the ground like undead toilet zombies climbing out of their graves to attack the living.
Some of it had travelled quite far. In the future, perhaps Disney will make a film about a sanitary towel unhappy with its lot that makes a bid for freedom, dreaming of a life beyond the sewer.
Grim as that was, there was worse to come. This street was at the lowest level of the estate and had turned into a sludgy canal. Estate agents would probably try and market this as the Venice of Hampshire but it's probably the last destination I would choose for a romantic weekend away.
As I walked in, my wellies kicked up the detritus. The murkier the water got, the clearer it became what it contained. The water got to about two inches from the top of my boots before I became worried about it spilling over the top and soaking my socks. I carefully waded out, moving slowly and taking care not to fall into an open manhole cover as an unfortunate council worker did earlier in the week, which I can only assume was a thoroughly disgusting experience.
For the residents, it was no joke. As a bunch of soldiers and firefighters helped her evacuate her home, Lola told us that her family had been living in various B&Bs since Saturday. “I’ve got one [child] with asthma and cerebral palsy and one with autism who doesn’t like change – and we’ve been moved three times.”
Lola let us into her house to see the damage. She said she had been told that her family would have to live in B&Bs for about six months.
For Cindy Young, a hairdresser, the stress of watching the grey-brown water ebb ever closer to her house was clearly too much. “It’s going to happen, we know it’s going to happen with the rain tomorrow. And sewage… they shouldn’t really be out there playing,” she said, referring to her children who were enjoying a good splash in their wellies. “I’m angry. It shouldn’t have come to this. It’s Valentine’s weekend and my husband was going to take us away to Torquay but we’ve had to cancel and we’ve lost our deposit as well.”
A cancelled holiday and a house about to be drowned in shit was one thing, but Cindy was mostly concerned about her cat, Topaz. “He’s a 21-year-old cat. He’s blind and he can’t hear. He’s a home cat, he doesn’t go out. I don’t care about the house. It’s the animals. I don’t want them taking my cat away from me," she said, tearing up. "We’re going to have to move to a B&B where they don’t take animals. It’s terrible. It’s ruined. Sewage!”
For 45-year-old self-employed accountant, Jay, the floods were nothing new. “What can we do? I’m used to this kind of situation back there in the Philippines. It’s nothing new. In this country it’s new but I’m used to it. There, it would be six-feet high,” he said, smiling. Still, it was pretty annoying. He was due to move into his new house, which had been specially adapted to make it easy for him to get round, given his disability, but obviously that had been postponed.
On the way back out of the estate, we found another source for the sewage. Cloudy water and scum was pumping out of a hole in the ground, easily bypassing the MDF defence that had been erected. Once again, shredded toilet paper was flapping like weeds in a stream.
After I got back to the office and washed my hands thoroughly, twice, I picked up the phone and talked to Dr Simon Parks from the University of Surrey, an expert in molecular biology, about how dangerous the contamination could be. "There's quite a big potential risk because there a lot of bacteria that cause diseases that are transmitted via what we call the faecal-oral route – so from sewage to the mouth. There are pathogens like salmonella and E.Coli that you would expect to find in sewage. If that contaminates groundwater then that’s going to put people at risk who come into contact with it. There’s also norovirus – if somebody’s sick in the toilet that could get into the sewage system," he said. The symptoms of all those things are pretty much varying degrees of puking and shitting yourself dry while holding your aching stomach and groaning in pain.
But that's not all, according to Simon. "If the water's lying there for a matter of months then you’re going to generate huge areas of stagnant water. Because it’s been in contact with food, sewage and soil it’s going to be very nutritious for bacteria to grow. So things like Weil's disease – a disease transmitted through cuts and by rats – [can be caught] if someone with a cut comes into contact with water and bacteria gains access to the body via a small cut. It could be lethal if it’s not treated quickly enough.
"Lots of things like to grow at higher temperatures so if the weather gets warmer then there might be the opportunity for more bacteria to grow in those environments. Things like mosquitos are going to be very happy to breed in it."
So, the water is dangerous at the moment, but could get worse if it stays there for ages and the weather warms up. It looks like the water could be around for up to six months and Britain is currently anticipating the hottest summer on record.
So, yeah. Not looking great.