Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on 22nd August. It has been republished following more rain in the UK and in light of recent developments. This week, Southern Water has received criticism for altering their pollution alert tool to no longer automatically flag all sewage releases into bathing water. Instead it will only flag those they consider likely to cause water quality issues at UK beaches.
As thunder clouds ripped open across Britain last week, the air seemed awash with relief. After almost 150 days since January with little or no rain in southern and central England, the country was finally reminded of what wet weather feels like. But the welcome rain also brought an unwanted companion: outpourings of sewage and effluent into the nation’s already suffocating waterways.
The latest releases come on top of the more than nine million hours of raw sewage that new data has shown was released into Britain’s seas and rivers between 2016-2021. The figure is an increase of 2,553 per cent over five years – and also only accounts for the known amounts. The Environment Agency (EA) has revealed that sewage monitors installed at some popular beaches in England and Wales are faulty or uninstalled, resulting in a quarter of sewage discharges going unmonitored. Meanwhile, the EA itself failed to attend almost half of the most serious water company spills reported to it in the first half of this year.
The UK’s sewer networks are easily overwhelmed by heavy downpours – especially when the ground is as parched and hard as it is at present, and rainfall gushes straight into drains instead of seeping into the soil where it can restore the depleted water table. To prevent the system becoming engulfed and backing sewage up into homes, water companies deploy emergency storm overflows. These send the extra volume directly into rivers and seas – but in the process, raw sewage and untreated waste are also released.
Within 24 hours of last week’s downpours beginning, the charity Surfers Against Sewage told the New Statesman that sewage had been discharged at more than 30 locations on its Safer Seas and Rivers Service app, which provides real-time updates on water quality across the UK. “The shitstorm after the calm,” tweeted its CEO, Hugo Tagholm, in response.
Are UK rivers and seas safe to swim in?
Storm overflow discharges and accidental spills are a hazard to human health. Not only are the slicks deeply unsettling to behold (as this viral video shows), they are also toxic. According to the government’s own advisers, discharges from storm overflows and other problematic sewage treatment works releases are “a serious public health issue for government and regulators”. In 2020, there were 153 reports of sickness from people using sites affected by overflow discharges.
What does sewage pollution do to rivers?
The impact on wildlife is perhaps even greater. Combined with other substances, including those from farms – which were found in 2015 to be the biggest sources of river pollution – untreated wastewater is creating a harmful “chemical cocktail”. Work at the University of Manchester has also shown that the discharge of untreated wastewater is the main supplier of microplastics to UK rivers. Only around 14 per cent of UK rivers are considered to be in good ecological condition and none have passed pollution tests for quality.
In the River Wye, on the border between England and Wales, pollution and warm weather have resulted in algal blooms that many fear are leaving the waterway on the brink of ecological collapse. In the Lake District, Lake Windermere appears to be heading for a similar fate: water that should be crystal clear is green with oxygen-sucking diatoms (microscopic algae), and fish are left gasping for air. In the mid-1980s there were about 20,000 salmon caught every year in English and Welsh rivers; now the figure is less than half that.
Is shellfish safe to eat from polluted areas?
Shellfish from British shores could pose a risk to human health after being exposed to sewage. Noroviruses can enter molluscs such as oysters when sewage penetrates their growing areas, according to the government’s marine science experts. Untreated waste was dumped into shellfish-inhabited water almost 29,000 times last year, with one event in Morecambe Bay lasting 5,000 hours. Whitstable’s celebrated oyster festival was even cut short in 2021 after concerns about sewage leaking into the water.
How much sewage is dumped?
Figures from the Environment Agency (EA), one of the UK’s water regulators, show there were more than 400,000 raw sewage discharges in England in 2020, adding up to over 3.1 million hours – a year-on-year increase of 37 per cent. And these are only the confirmed statistics. The EA gives water companies permits to use storm overflows, but the conditions attached to these are often breached, making some spills illegal.
Peter Hammond, a computational biology professor at University College London, has estimated that the scale of illegal discharges is around ten times greater than the EA’s estimates, and that these discharges include releases of untreated sewage at times when there has been no rain at all. The problem would be better monitored, Hammond and others argue, if the volume of sewage released was measured and not just the number of incidents.
A warming world will lead to extended dry-spells and more frequent, intense storms. As well as tackling increasing drought, Britain must also update its infrastructure to prepare for the flash floods which follow. Yet there is little confidence that England’s privatised water companies will meet the challenge: a 2021 poll found public trust in the industry had dropped to an 11-year low.
How can sewage pollution be stopped?
The privatised English water companies and their regulators say they are acting (in Scotland, the system is nationalised). “Over the last five years, for example, we have imposed penalties and payments of over £250m,” an Ofwat spokesperson told the New Statesman. The regulator has also confirmed there will be £51bn of investment by the water companies over the next five years. But as river campaigners such as the former Undertones singer Feargal Sharkey point out, the ongoing leaks and spills show that investment to date has fallen far short of what’s needed, despite billions being paid out to water company shareholders and millions in bonuses to their executives.
Trust in ministers or government agencies to hold the English water companies to account is thin. Post-Brexit, the Conservative government has championed a “Red Tape Initiative” to cut regulation. The money ring-fenced for monitoring and enforcing environmental protection has fallen by around two thirds since 2010. And fines seem to have little effect: in 2017, Thames Water was fined a record £20m for pumping 1.9 billion litres of untreated sewage into the River Thames, but this year, water companies in England are again under investigation for their failure to adequately manage of sewage treatment works and comply with permits.
As Sharkey told the New Statesman earlier this year: the regulators are “running about like cockroaches because someone turned the light on”.
Which MPs voted against tougher legislation?
Progress on enforcement is stalling even as the drought-exacerbated floods increase. Last year, an amendment to the Environment Bill would have placed a legal duty on water companies not to pump waste into rivers, but it was voted down by 265 Tory MPs. In a partial U-turn, the government then promised to publish a plan to cut the number, frequency and length of overflow discharges – but on 11 August, it announced the strategy had been delayed and would be released “in due course”.
Which country has the best sewage system?
Not all UK waterway degradation is the water companies’ fault. As mentioned above, soil erosion, pesticides, fertilisers and waste discharge from farms are a huge part of the problem. Plus, research suggests that water companies in England and Wales outperform those in all other European nations, save Germany, when it comes to sewage treatment. Yet other countries still manage to do better on water quality for wild bathing: in 2020 the UK was ranked last in Europe. Israel, meanwhile, recycles nearly 90 per cent of its wastewater, compared to the 60 per cent European average.
What matters, ultimately, is not which country has the best system of treating wastewater, but what healthy rivers and seas mean to the British public – and how far we are prepared to demand they are protected. As Dr Amy Jane-Beer, author of The Flow: Rivers, Water and Wildness, movingly writes, the individuals and campaigns working to highlight the problems are performing an invaluable act in the face of “an unnameable agony of loss”.