Environment

Sewage dumped into rivers almost 400,000 times in 2021

New data shows that sewage was dumped into England's rivers almost 400,000 times in 2021, sparking outrage from clean river campaigners.

River in Durham.

Earlier this year the EAC warned of a "chemical cocktail" of pollutants in rivers. (Image: Pixabay)

Sewage was dumped into England’s rivers 372,533 times in 2021 over a period of 2.6 million hours, new data has revealed.

The number of spills overall has declined since 2020, when 403,171 were recorded, but clean river campaigners say the figures are still too high given dumping is only supposed to occur in exceptional circumstances.

Many spills also go unrecorded due to not all overflow pipes being monitored.

Ashley Smith of river campaign group Windrush WASP said the dumping of sewage in 2022 “far exceeded what could be described as dumping in ‘exceptional circumstances'”.

The data comes as the government publishes its consultation into reducing sewage spills into rivers, with a pledge to eliminate the environmental impact of 3,000 storm overflows “affecting our most important protected sites” by 2035.

Storm overflows are pipes which allow sewage to be spilled into rivers following bouts of extreme weather to reduce pressure on water companies’ infrastructure.

The government has also said there will be 70 per cent fewer discharges into bathing waters by 2035.

MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) welcomed the announcement, saying it represented a “sea change” in policy action around sewage.

Clean river campaigners, however, say the measures don’t go far enough. Currently, just one river in England is designated as a bathing water, while 3,000 storm overflows represent less than a quarter of the total storm overflow pipes in England.

What Defra hypes as progress is dreadfully inadequate and seems to be treating the public as fools; it’s like offering to pour water on your house after it has burned down,” Smith of Windrush WASP said.

England’s rivers are some of the worst-polluted in Europe, with every single one failing a pollution test in 2020 and just 14 per cent rated as in ecologically “good” condition.

Earlier this year, a report from the EAC warned that rivers could be breeding drug-resistant diseases as a result of a “chemical cocktail” of pollutants in waterways.

Rivers are being damaged by a range of pollutants including sewage, which is dumped into rivers on an alarmingly regular basis.

Water companies are permitted to spill sewage into rivers via storm overflow pipes with a licence following extreme weather conditions, but a number of spills have taken place illegally.

Water companies have blamed outdated sewage infrastructure for the number of spills into rivers, saying that they are unable to cope with growing populations and more extreme weather.

Campaigners have criticised the companies for failing to invest in infrastructure, with Thames, Southern and Yorkshire Water all paying out dividends in 2020 in spite of pledges to invest the money into upgrades.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive at charity Surfers Against Sewage said:

“Water companies have been pumping untreated sewage into our waterways for millions of hours, and yet industry bosses have the gall to say tackling this ‘wasn’t on our customers priority list.’

“We’re sure customers haven’t been calling for eye-watering profits and salaries for water company executives but this never stopped them. These ill-gotten gains must be taken out of the pockets of industry fat cats and invested in protecting and restoring our rivers and seas.”

Environment Agency chief executive Sir James Bevan said:

“Water companies have rightly been under increasing pressure from the Environment Agency, campaigners and the public for allowing far too many sewage spills into rivers, and we are holding the industry to account on a scale never done before.

“Requiring water companies to provide this data is critical in ensuring everyone can see what is going on. I am pleased that we are on course to have all overflows monitored by next year, but the present situation is simply not good enough. Water companies need to act now to reduce their overflows to the minimum possible.” 

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back
Rewilding

Rewilding is bringing creatures great and small back to UK – but a lack of funds is holding it back

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned
Green transition

Green transition: Help retrain gas workers or risk 'cliff edge' job losses, government warned

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'
beavers
Environment

How London's history-making beavers are adapting to life in the capital: 'They have a right to exist'

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent
Environment

Shell just made £6.2bn in quarterly profit. Here's how that money could be better spent

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know