The UK sewage crisis – a bad smell that won’t go

The United Kingdom is grappling with a pressing issue of sewage dumping, posing significant risks to the environment, wildlife, and human health. While London’s £4bn “super sewer” is set to mitigate 39 million cubic meters of sewage from entering the Thames each year, coastal areas remain vulnerable. Alarming statistics reveal that raw sewage was dumped into UK seas over 3,000 times in 2022, amounting to more than 180,000 hours of discharge.

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Moreover, data from 2022 shows that no UK river is in good chemical health and only 14% meet good ecological status. The adverse effects on human health and the environment have led to public and political discontent with many calling for immediate action.

Why is it happening? During periods of intense rainfall, the sewage system can become overwhelmed, leading to an emergency release of sewage into nearby rivers or oceans. The policy that governs this process, such as the Urban Waste Water Treatment Regulation, permits such dumping only in cases of “unusually heavy rainfall.” This system is crucial to prevent sewage from backing up into people’s homes. However, due to the lack of clear guidelines defining what constitutes an “unusually heavy rainfall” event, water companies have exploited this authority. Moreover, Surfers Against Sewage, a non-profit organisation, reported a total of 146 “dry spills” during the period of 2021-2022, signifying instances where no rainfall took place in the two days preceding the release of sewage. These dry spills pose a greater threat to the environment due to lower water levels, leading to higher concentrations of toxins.

Health implications – Data released by the Environment Agency earlier this year paints a troubling picture of near-constant sewage discharges across England, Wales, and Scotland in 2022. These spills have dire consequences for human health, as highlighted in Surfers Against Sewage’s 2022 Water Quality Report. The report documented an alarming increase in reports of illness following water exposure, with gastroenteritis being the most common ailment. More than double the number of reports from 2020/2021 were received, with one-third directly linked to sewage spills.

Environmental impacts – The impact of sewage on the environment, particularly on rivers, streams, and oceans, cannot be understated. Raw waste discharged into waterways poses a threat to the delicate balance of aquatic ecosystems. Sewage introduces excessive nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, into the water, leading to a process called eutrophication. The excess nutrients invigorate the growth of algae, disrupting biodiversity, altering ecosystem function, and diminishing the overall species richness in affected areas. The subsequent decomposition of algae leads to depleted oxygen levels, resulting in the death of fish and other organisms that rely on high oxygen levels. In extreme cases, this can result in hypoxic conditions leading to vast “dead zones“.

Moreover, sewage dumps introduce toxic algae and contaminants like heavy metals, microplastics, and pesticides into waterways, posing further risks to wildlife and human health. The River Lim in Dorset, England, serves as a poignant example of ecological devastation, as campaigners have described it as “ecologically dead” due to high levels of e-Coli contamination. This pollution has disrupted the once-thriving local ecosystem that historically supported eels, trout, and kingfisher populations.

A watershed moment – The issue has been raised several times in parliament and water companies can now face unlimited fines. The most recent of which was issued at the end of April when South West Water received a £2.15m fine for 7 dumping incidents between 2016-2020. In 2021, Southern Water was fined £90m for deliberately dumping up to 21 billion litres of raw sewage for their own financial gain.

Privately-owned water companies in England have recently apologised and pledged to invest £10bn over the next decade in an attempt to reduce pollution in the UK’s seas and rivers. The companies will triple their existing investment plans to fund the largest modernisation of sewers “since the Victorian era” to reduce the number of spills. An online hub will provide the public with live information on river flows and the state of coastal waters. Water companies will also support up to 100 communities in creating new protected areas for swimming, while also boosting the capacity of existing sewage treatment works and storm surge infrastructure. The new investment, which will see more than 350,000 miles of sewer network replaced, is in addition to £3.1bn being spent between 2020 and 2025.

Political pressure and delayed legislative action – Although the investment pledges made by water companies to address the sewage crisis have been welcomed by the Environmental Audit Committee, legislative action has been disappointingly slow. In April, Conservative MPs obstructed the passage of Labour’s Sewage Discharge Bill, which sought to impose automatic fines on water companies involved in sewage releases and reduce storm overflow discharges by 90%.

Water pollution has now emerged as a divisive political issue, with sewage becoming a top concern for many voters in the recent local elections. The Conservative party suffered significant losses, with nearly 1000 councillors replaced and 50 previously held councils slipping out of their control.

Action needed – The health and well-being of both the environment and the population are at stake, making it crucial to prioritise and implement effective measures to combat the sewage crisis across the UK. The recent commitment of £10bn of investment is a step in the right direction, but further legislative action is required – this isn’t a bad smell that will go away on its own.