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UK water sewage discharge- How much more wastewater in our waves?


We’ve known for many years now that our natural water is not as clean as it should be. Rubbish dumping, abandoned fishing debris, oil spills etc. these polluters feel like neverending battles at sea. But such facts can become normalised from hearing them so often. Like white noise, the warning signs can fade into the background of our everyday lives. Until it gets noticed firsthand, and when are we more seabound than the summer? 

The water quality problems were splashed upon over the past few sunny months after large amounts of raw sewage merged with popular swimming spots. Sea dippers found themselves sharing the depths with faecal matter instead of fish. ‘Polluted water- no swimming’ signs were put up and in some cases, beaches were closed. What caused the sewage spill? Heavy rainfall and flooding in areas in England meant water company storm overflow systems released wastewater out into the open. This sounds like a justifiable reason and it is, however, the huge volume of sewage that has been pouring into UK waters cannot be justified. Storm overflow systems are supposed to act as a last resort to avoid wastewater being forced back to the buildings it was expelled from after heavy rainfall. With so much waste entering rivers and the sea at visually obvious levels, there is a demand for answers.  

According to Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) “the UK is consistently ranked as one of the worst European countries for coastal water quality and only 14% of rivers meet good ecological status” because of the constant sewage and run-off pouring in.

In late August French MEPs accused the UK of ignoring environmental responsibilities, threatening aquatic life and fishing. Even though the UK is no longer within the EU, they argue that the UK is still expected to respect shared waters. With the UK sewage surge, it is safe to say that UK water quality is not up to the standards of the EU. 

Surfers Against Sewage states that “In 2020 there were over 400,000 discharges of untreated sewage into UK rivers and almost 5,500 discharges into UK coastal bathing waters.” Recent stats from the Environment Agency found that raw sewage has been pumped into UK water for more than nine million hours between 2016 and 2021. That is the equivalent of 1,076 years worth of dumping. Water companies are on trial. 

Southern Water was already fined ninety million pounds in 2021 for pollution when they were found guilty of 6,000 unauthorised sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015. 

The frequent use of storm overflow systems is posing a real threat to people and wildlife. Sewage damages fragile ecosystems within the water and swimmers are at risk of stomach illness, infections of the ears, nose and throat, hepatitis and e-coli. 

The government has recognised better operational management, innovation and investment are needed to fix the sewage discharge situation. They stated that “This is rightly seen as the job of water companies. As a start, 4 have recently agreed to reduce their overflows to an average of no more than 20 discharges a year by 2025 – but we need to go much further”. 

Environment secretary George Eustice has been insisting that the government is working on the situation. Eustice claims companies are being monitored, with 54 prosecutions having been made and £140 million in fines in relation to sewage dumping have been enforced since 2015. However, the recent government plan released on tackling water pollution permits sewage discharge from water companies up until the year 2050. This was received with frustration and outrage from the public and a number of environment-pro groups, including Green Party MPs and charity Wildfish. Wildfish has deemed the government’s plan unlawful (to allow sewage discharge to continue for so many years) and is making proceedings against it. 

Surfers Against Sewage do have some positive figures despite the recent spike in sewage discharge:

 “98.5% of the 625 designated bathing waters around the UK are now classified as excellent, good, or sufficient. This is a huge leap forward from when we started in 1990, when just 27% of bathing waters could meet the same standards”.

The organisation takes the currently poor water quality we do have into consideration, providing a ‘Safer Seas and Rivers Service’ in which maps are used to show the risk levels of water quality around England, Scotland and Wales. This way sea and river goers can judge for themselves whether or not to enter the water without braving it blindly and coming face to face with raw sewage as a result. The service includes real-time alerts and information on water quality. Although SAS cannot fix the current sewage situation, their service will save many people from becoming sick from sewage waste in the water. 

What could help fix the current situation is the construction of the £4.3billion, 16-mile ‘Tideway Tunnel’ due to open in 2025. The Tideway Tunnel runs under London, so only select places will benefit from its sewage holding capacity.  But for the Victorian sewer system that still handles the now much bigger city’s waste, The Tideway Tunnel could give it the assistance it’s been waiting for. The tunnel aims to hugely reduce sewage overflow into the River Thames as it will be able to store wastewater and provide an outflow when the Victorian system becomes overwhelmed by rainfall or high volumes of sewage discharge from water companies. The sewage discharge from water companies will hopefully be greatly reduced by 2025 when the tunnel opens, but if this government plan goes ahead, significant levels of sewage could still be released up to 2050. In either case, the Tideway Tunnel could be a saving grace for London, surrounding water areas and the ocean as the government, environmental organisations and water companies face and deliberate our water pollution problem. 

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