The UK has regained its status as 'the dirty man of Europe'; every single one of England´s rivers now fails to meet safety standards1 and we have the worst water quality in swimming sites in Europe2. In 2019 and 2020, there have been 600,000 occasions where raw sewage was pumped into rivers, beaches and open waters3.
The cause is deregulation. Conservative Environment Secretary from 2014 (Liz Truss) cut £24m from sewage monitoring1 and they've removed legal safeguards1,3. "Raw sewage dumps have doubled since those cuts", say Greenpeace, and the Environment Agency "found that 90% of sewage monitors at seasides are broken [or] not installed"1. Despite public uproar, the Conservatives rejected the Environment Act 2021 amendment "that would have introduced a legal obligation to bring down sewage dumping progressively"4 and the 2023 Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill that would "increase penalties for water companies and others who fail to adequately monitor sewage discharges, impose fines and binding targets for such events"5.6. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Green Party, are simply powerless to force the Government to act.
As long as our population and waste products continue to increase, and climate change makes rain events more extreme, we need to invest more in preventative measures. These include re-funding and empower environmental agencies such as the Environment Agency, Natural Resources Wales and OFWAT and setting legal requirements to make improvements before profits are used as bonuses. Water companies can afford it - bosses are "taking home gigantic pay packets and gifting themselves obscene bonuses"7 and have given a whopping £72 billion as shareholder dividends since privatisation4. Those responsible for failing to stop sewage polluting public water need to be held to account more strictly, regardless of their political ties to government.
We need to improve building standards and add green measures such as waterbutt capturing of roofwater for use in cisterns and gardens. We need more protected natural areas around built-up areas to replace the woodlands and natural features that were previously excellent at soaking up groundwater, preventing sewerage systems from overflowing; likewise, we need to discourage gardens that are homogenous expanses of low-biology lawn or tarmacked over. In short, we need both low-level behaviour changes, and top-level engagement from Government. If all of these things are pursued, the UK should be able to reduce the amount of sewage entering our rivers and waters.
Like almost all sewerage systems, the UK's is a "combined network", where water from rain and land runoff all feed into the same waste drains as building waste, such as toilet outputs.1,3,8. This has to be treated before it can be let out into rivers and oceans, because otherwise it spreads serious disease and chemical contamination, doing large-scale damage to the natural world on which we all rely.
However, when there is too much rain, water companies are allowed to discharge some of the mass without treating it1. However, this has been happening so frequently that by 2023, every single one of England´s rivers now fails to meet safety standards1.
There are multiple causes:
Poor Governance and deregulation. Over the past decade, the UK's Conservative Party has removed legal safeguards and taken away funding from monitoring systems that are supposed to keep track of how much sewage is released without treating. Water companies have become increasingly free to operate without oversight. The result has been an environmental disaster. As of 2023, there are no signs that they are learning any lessons.1,3
Too many houses, producing too much waste. The entire system is operating above capacity - "the system is so far over-capacity that in some areas drizzle can make it overflow - and blockages and fatbergs can cause overflows even when it´s not raining"3.
Loss of nature. The loss of natural woodlands, bogs and peatland have removed the ability of vast swathes of land to absorb groundwater from rains, causing flashfloods and much larger volumes of rainwater to enter the sewerage system, making it more common to have overflows of sewage into the overall water system.
Climate change is causing more extreme weather. "Previously, only freak storms would fill the system to the point that the toxic soup would spill out into waterways (to avoid the even grislier prospect of it spouting back up our drains). Now... the frequency of storms have increased"3 to beyond the coping capacity of much of the system.
Not enough mitigations nor planning. Most factors associated with climate change, population growth and long-term increases in wastewater have been part of environmental science and expert warnings for many decades. The failure to plan, to educate, to legislate and learn are symptoms of poor health of UK culture and UK politics.
The UK's Conservative Party's long-term policy is to deregulate industry, which has resulted in horrendous damage to the environment. In 2010, the UK's rivers were cleaner than they had been for a long time9, although they still compared poorly to the rest of the EU's2.
When to-be Conservative Prime Minister Liz Truss was Environment Secretary from 2014, she cut £235 million from environmental budgets1, including £24 million from services that monitor sewage dumping by water companies1; "raw sewage dumps have doubled since those cuts", say Greenpeace, and the Environment Agency "found that 90% of sewage monitors at seasides are broken. In many locations, they´re not installed at all"1.
From 2013 to 2021, serious water pollution problems rose to their highest levels1 and "England´s nine water and sewerage companies had the worst environmental performance for years"1. In 2019, raw sewage was pumped into English rivers more than 200,000 times3, and directly on to beaches almost 3000 times across England and Wales3. The Environment Agency was pressurized to reveal its 2020 data, which showed 400,000 occasions of human effluence being pumped into English waters3.
“The prevalence of raw sewage in British waters is not only about the horror of swimming amid human waste but about the health and environmental threats of microplastics (especially from laundry water), endocrine disruptors (chemicals that interfere with hormones found in plastics, detergents and cosmetics), phosphorus (which causes algae blooms) [and] antibiotic-resistant bacteria.”
The Guardian (2021)3
Source:The Guardian (2021)2
Swimming sites are directly linked to overall water system health, especially river health. The EU's river water-quality standards stipulate that water companies must treat sewage rather than dump it in rivers and oceans3 where it impacts on all neighbouring countries. Since its adoption in 1991, over 90% of urban wastewater has come to be treated throughout the EU, and 'the quality of European rivers, lakes and seas has dramatically improved'10. The UK never done well2, however, and the International Water Resources Association's Callum Clench recalls that the UK was regularly fined for not meeting those standards and he worries about further decline now that the UK has left the EU3 and its Conservative Party Government feels freer to do less, and is actively removing even more environmental legislation.
For more, see:
The Conservative Party had a chance to fix this with a new Prime Minister in 2022, however, the Prime Minister they chose was Liz Truss, who continued to deregulate, specifically, by destroying green planning laws that regulate phosphate and nitrate dumping into waterways as a result of building houses1. Now, housing and construction companies simply needn't make plans to avoid pumping waste into rivers1.
Finally, these cuts began to get public attention, especially from mid-2022.
“In  the public was rightly outraged at the sewage pumped into our waters in record amounts. It turned up on our [rivers and] dozens of beaches were closed to swimmers due to the high levels of toxic waste. And there may have been many more that went untested. Rivers are affected too. Every single one of England´s rivers now fails to meet safety standards, with few deemed to be in good health. [...] This is partly due to sewage flooding our waterways. But chemical and agricultural pollution also play a part.”
"How sewage got into UK rivers and seas, and how to fix it" by Greenpeace (2023)1
The Labour Party, although in opposition, can occasionally get items presented to the UK Parliament. The uproar around sewage being pumped into rivers and open waters allowed them in 2011 to present the Environment Act 2021 amendment "that would have introduced a legal obligation to bring down sewage dumping progressively. It was blocked by Conservative MPs, who voted against it. It fell at the first test, but we believe in second chances"4... and in 2023, Labour tabled the Water Quality (Sewage Discharge) Bill, hoping that Conservatives would feel obliged to vote for it for ethical and public health reasons, and embarrassed to vote against it because of its high profile.
“The Labour motion would set aside Commons time on 2 May to debate and vote on [the Bill] introduced last month by Jim McMahon, the shadow environment secretary.
If passed, the bill would increase penalties for water companies and others who fail to adequately monitor sewage discharges, impose fines and binding targets for such events, and oblige the government to publish a strategy on the issue.
Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have used previous votes over sewage - particularly one in October 2021, when Conservative MPs voted down an amendment to the environment bill on reducing discharges - to target individual Tories over the issue. [...]
After data showed raw discharges were sent into English rivers 825 times a day last year, Keir Starmer has accused the government of "turning Britain´s waterways into an open sewer".”
Previously, Conservative Whips have enforced the Party line against this kind of legislation, thoroughly defeating it, as they also did this time. A few days later, the Conservatives released their own bill, which has been criticized for allowing the commercial model to continue, with companies investing far too little.
There are a wide variety of mechanisms that can be employed to help reduce sewerage effluence; none will work on their own, and all of them need to be constantly improved as long as the human population continues to increase. All of these need to be pursued simultaneously; the Environment Agency is largely on board, but, have been complaining for a decade that it does not have the funding nor legal power to proceed.
Re-fund and repair sewerage runoff monitoring. The Conservatives cut £24 million from this monitoring in 2014-51, with disastrous results for river water safety. To govern effectively, the government needs data on sewerage overflows, and water waste produced by industrial sites.
"Properly fund and empower environmental agencies "such as the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales and the water regulator OFWAT. Decades of budget cuts have seriously weakened and undermined these agencies. Funding them allows closer monitoring of the performance and actions of water companies" - Greenpeace (2023)1. They need legal powers to hold water companies to account for failures, and top management bonuses and financial rewards need to be tied to corporate good behaviour.
"Set more ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality. In England and Wales, the government´s current water target proposals completely miss out key sources of pollution. And there isn´t even a long-term target for overall water quality. This isn´t good enough. We want a target for 100% of waterways to reach 'clean water' status by 2037" - Greenpeace (2023)1. The water companies can afford it - since privatisation, they have given no less than a whopping £72 billion pounds to their shareholders in dividends4.
Impose higher fines. The Environment Agency itself notes that although there is no limit, the courts are only issuing fines that fall below a single CEO's individual base salary, and it wants courts to make the amounts meaningful as a deterrent1.
Prison sentences for chief executives and board members of companies responsible for the most serious incidents - this is what the Environment Agency has called for, according to Greenpeace (2023)1, and also, that directors are formally struck off for allowing incidents to occur, so that "cannot simply move on in their careers after illegal environmental damage"1. This would ensure that corporate policy is clearly oriented towards avoiding serious sewage incidents.
Mandatory waterbutt installation on all new house builds. These will capture water during rains and storms, reducing the surge of water that can cause sewage to be discharged directly into the environment. Also, the stored water can reduce household usage of tapwater. Here are two specific uses:
And then, water companies must offer all customers an option to have those installed at their existing homes, charged at-cost.
More protected natural areas around built-up areas. We must have more trees and deep-rooted plants around our houses to protect the natural world which is excellent at soaking up groundwater and preventing sewerage systems getting inundated with rainwater. Natural self-maintaining woodlands are much cheaper than artificial solutions such as SuDS, and have many other benefits.
Sustainable Drainage Systems (SuDS) are 'green infrastructure' designed to reconstruct, maintain and replace what has been lost with our wholesale destruction of nature: the ability of the land to absorb water and release it over time3. "They use wetlands, ponds and green ditches called swales, as well as green roofs, rainwater-harvesting systems and replacing nonabsorbent surfaces with porous asphalt or gravel"3 .
Places such as Wuhan in China and Malmö in Sweden have been employed large-scale SuDS to reduce flashfloods and water ingress into sewers3. Likewise, the UK Environment Agency is "looking at" other places that have implemented wise solutions, such as Copenhagen and some USA and Canadian locations3. Wales has successfully implemented a scheme in Llanelli which has proven cheaper than building new sewers3.
Encourage natural gardens that aren't homogenous expanses of low-biology lawn. Keith Davis of the UK Environment Agency points out that the proliferation of shallow-lawned gardens increases water run-off3 as there are no large water-retaining root systems. Automated systems based on satellite imagery should identify houses with pure-lawn or fake lawn, and charge them a higher water cost to compensate for extra run-off they are generating through their land-use.
Adhere to the EU river water-quality standards that stipulate "that water companies must treat sewage" rather than dump it in rivers and oceans3 where it impacts not just on their own public health but also on that of neighbouring countries. These standards have meant that since its adoption in 1991, over 90% of urban wastewater has come to be treated throughout the EU, and 'the quality of European rivers, lakes and seas has dramatically improved'10.
Separate rainwater from sewage by creating a second drainage system.. This is Wessex Water's plan in the SW of the UK8. But it's not much of a fix because much groundwater is still polluted from agriculture, meaning, that it is likely that the separated water will still need to be treated. And this means, there will still be effluence into public water supplies during rains. But, it's still worth trying, and in some geographical areas it could be a hefty medium- to long- solution.
Re-Nationalize water companies. This is the solution preferred by the Green Party12, who highlighted the failure of the commercial model for long-term planning on any matter related to essential public services and public health despite water company "bosses... taking home gigantic pay packets and gifting themselves obscene bonuses"7 and giving a whopping £72 billion as shareholder dividends since privatisation4. Likewise, the Liberal Democrats want to ban bonuses until more money goes into fixing water infrastructure leaks12.