Plan to bring Welsh water to London brings back painful memories

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On a February night 60 years ago, three young men fought a snowstorm to plant a bomb at a construction site in a remote Welsh valley. Their goal was a dam built by an English privatized water company to bring water to Liverpool.

In order to provide millions of liters a day for the English town, the people of the small village of Capel Celyn in Eryri (Snowdonia) were to be evicted and their homes, farms, post office, school, chapel and graveyard flooded to create a reservoir.

Related: Water companies in England and Wales lost 1 trillion liters to leaking pipes in 2021

The bombing of the power transformer that supplied electricity to the settlement by the newly formed Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru (Movement for the Defense of Wales) on 9 February 1963 was an act born of fierce opposition to the village’s drowning. People boarded buses to Liverpool to march through the streets.

Despite the protests, in October 1965 Alderman Frank Cain of the Corporation of Liverpool pulled a lever to sink Capel Celyn forever under tens of millions of gallons of water to create the Llyn Celyn Reservoir.

Today, as climate change plunges more and more regions into drought, privatized water companies are once again turning to Wales for more water – this time for London and the south-east of England.

Thames Water aims to take up to 155 million liters of water a day from Wales to improve service to the most populous part of England in the years to come. It works with United Utilities, which holds a license to extract water from Lake Vyrnwy, a reservoir in Powys, and Severn Trent. But as the graffiti across North Wales commemorating Capel Celyn shows, water remains an emotional issue in the country.

Politicians in Powys are gearing up for tough water access negotiations for years to come. The Borough Council wants the UK and Welsh Governments to put in place the necessary legal framework to enable its communities to reap financial benefits from the use of its water. Council wants a levy to be levied on the water supply which is not for the direct benefit or consumption by the people of Powys.

Cofiwch Dryweryn (Remember Tryweryn) in Ceredigion commemorates the decision to flood the Tryweryn Valley, including the village of Capel Celyn. Photo: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Elwyn Vaughan, a councilor for Plaid Cymru in County Council, said there had been officers from Thames Water in the Lake Vrynwy area for the past 12 months. “Last year’s drought seems to have really focused heads,” Vaughan said. “But before Thames Water looks at our water here, I argue that they should patch their own leaks first – 600 million liters a day – rather than putting all that effort into taking water from here.”

Vaughan added: “Water is a very sensitive issue. It is a fallacy to assume that supplies will always be plentiful.”

The water companies’ proposal is to divert water from Lake Vyrnwy, which is now being taken by United Utilities to supply Liverpool and north-west England, to supply London and the south-east. Water from the reservoir would be diverted into the River Vyrnwy and further into the River Severn, where it would be taken near Gloucester before being channeled to south-east England via a new pipeline or restored Cotswold canals.

Environmental concerns center on the release of vast amounts of water into the Rivers Vrynwy and Severn and the impact on other Welsh rivers when replacing the water abstracted for the South East.

Ceri Davies of Natural Resources Wales said: “This release into the Vyrnwy would need to be carefully controlled to balance other important requirements such as flood risk management and environmental impacts. We need to be satisfied that the proposals will not have an adverse impact on communities and wildlife in Wales before we approve them.”

Gail Davies-Walsh, chief executive of Afonydd Cymru (Welsh Rivers Trust), echoed the concerns, saying the Severn is a Special Area of ​​Conservation so it is important that the additional flow into it does not have a negative impact.

Related: It’s back: the lost Welsh village resurfaced in the drought

There are also fears that the knock-on effect of diverting water from Wales to the south-east of England will damage other Welsh rivers. Peter Powell, Chief Executive of the Welsh Dee Trust said: “If they are to start using Lake Vyrnwy to supply water to England, they need to take more water from the River Dee for Liverpool and the North West. The Dee is already struggling with over-abstraction and this will put enormous additional pressure on him.

“The rivers of Wales are all overly abstract and have their own challenges. This plan will take more water out of Wales to fuel economic growth in the south east of England.”

Capel Celyn is a vivid memory in Wales, rarely more so than last summer when the whole country was plunged into a drought and the water level at Llyn Celyn was so low that the ghostly remains of the village chapel were able to emerge from the bottom of the reservoir.

Jane Dodds, leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said there was a long history in Wales of its raw materials being used for use in England while local people did not benefit, with the Capel Celyn drowning being one of the most notable examples be. “These latest plans from United Utilities, Severn Trent and Thames Water risk repeating past mistakes,” Dodds said.

For Elwyn Edwards, who was 13 when his relatives were evicted from Capel Celyn, the problem is simple: ‘I went to Liverpool to protest. Two busloads of us drove from here, but nothing came of it. They kept going anyway and we didn’t get a dime. So I don’t mind them taking the water as long as they pay for it, every ounce.”

thames water said: Last summer’s extreme heat and lack of water is a clear first-hand indication of the climate emergency. There are no easy quick fixes and we need to plan ahead to manage a growing population, changing climate and increasing risk of drought to ensure we can protect our environment now and in the future.

Diverting water currently used by United Utilities from Lake Vyrnwy in Wales is one of several options being considered. There are no plans to abstract any additional water from Lake Vyrnwy beyond what United Utilities is currently permitted to abstract under its existing abstraction license.”

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