Untreated sewage dumped into UK waters ‘1,000 times every day for year’ damning report says

Public has raised concerns about number of sewage discharges across the UK, particularly at beaches and swimming spots

Maira Butt
Tuesday 21 November 2023 16:08

Related: Flowing sewage released in sea next to Cornwall beach

Untreated sewage has been dumped into UK waters more than 399,000 times in the last year, a campaign group has claimed.

Surfers Against Sewage has released its annual Water Quality Report for 2023, which claims raw sewage was discharged an average of 1,090 times a day.

The report, which looked at data from environmental regulators across the country between October 2022 and September this year, further claims there were thousands of reports of sewage-related sickness in the same period.

The SAS map shows the sheer scale of sewage dumping across rivers and coastlines in the UK

SA , which campaigns for clean oceans, rivers and lakes, says it received nearly 2,000 reports of sewage-related illness and disease last year.

The environmental group said 40 UK locations were sampled weekly by volunteer citizens throughout the 2023 bathing season. Of these, 20 were popular sites for swimming and 20 were upstream of nearby sewage overflow associated with the swimming spots, although none of the sites are officially designated bathing waters.

The campaign group found that 24 of the locations would be deemed “poor” quality were they designated bathing waters, as per the Environment Agency’s methodology.

The research also suggests four out of 20 locations showed a clear decrease in water quality from locations upstream to those downstream of a sewage overflow.

SAS noted that many overflows in Scotland and Northern Ireland go unreported, meaning the headline figure is likely to be an underestimate of the frequency of sewage discharges into UK waters.

Carla Magee (left) and Aine McAuley from Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) protest against pollution at Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland, which has been polluted by deadly blue-green algae

Giles Bristow, chief executive of SAS, said: “Yet again, our annual water quality report reveals the complacency and disregard of governments, water companies and regulators towards the health of rivers and coastlines in the UK – and by extension people’s health.

“We are seeing failure at every level – from governments and regulators failing to enforce the law, to water company fat cats pocketing dirty money and refusing to clean up their act – with the general public ending up the biggest loser every time.

“How many times can we say ‘enough is enough’? Our leaders need to prioritise transparency, ensure laws and regulations are properly enforced, and prevent water companies profiting from pollution.”

SAS said it has developed the End Sewage Pollution Manifesto in collaboration with environmental charities, community groups and sport governing bodies, which sets out policies to clean up UK rivers and seas.

These include enforcing the law and regulations, stopping pollution for profit, empowering a nature-led approach to tackle sewage pollution and ensuring transparency on sewage pollution.

This Surfers Against Sewage map shows the reported discharges from August this year at the height of the summer holidays

Water minister Rebecca Pow said: “We agree the volume of pollution in our waters is utterly unacceptable, and this is the first Government in history to take such comprehensive action to tackle it.

“Our Plan for Water is delivering more investment, stronger regulation and tougher enforcement to ensure every overflow is monitored, reduce all sources of pollution and hand out swifter fines and penalties.

“This plan includes targets so strict they are leading to the largest infrastructure programme in water company history – £60 billion over 25 years – which in turn will result in hundreds of thousands fewer sewage discharges.”

(left to right) Helen Armstrong, Ali Bryans, Aine McAuley and Carla Magee from Surfers Against Sewage

An Environment Agency spokesperson said there is” more to do” to improve designated bathing sites and waterways and pledged to work with a variety of groups from farmers to water companies to reduce pollution.

A spokesperson for the trade association Water UK said: “We should all be able to safely enjoy our local beaches, rivers and other waterways. Water industry investment has transformed coastal bathing water with a sevenfold increase in the number of beaches achieving an ‘excellent’ from the Environment Agency since the 1990s.

“We now need to do the same for our rivers and inland bathing areas to ensure we meet public expectation. To do this companies are proposing to invest £11 billion over the next seven years to massively reduce storm overflows and radically improve our rivers for bathing and other recreational activities.”

A spokesperson for watchdog Ofwat added: “We have pushed companies to take urgent action to cut sewage discharges and have recently announced new measures to penalise companies that fail to fully monitor their storm overflows.

“From next year, we will also have new powers to take action against companies that pay out unearned dividends and can ensure customers no longer foot the bill for inappropriate bonuses. However, we are clear, current water company performance is simply not good enough.”

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