Environment

'The water turned brown while I was in it': Sewage pollution rises by more than 80% in a year

Water companies have pledged to minimise sewage discharges into UK seas and rivers - but new data has revealed a shocking rise in incidents.

Just 14 per cent of England's rivers are deemed to be in "good" ecological condition. (Photo: © Anthony Harrison (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Sewage pollution into Britain’s seas has increased by almost 90 per cent in the past year despite pledges from water companies to end the harmful practice.

A new report from campaign group Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) has revealed a dramatic increase in pollution incidents, with waters designated as of “good” and “excellent” quality the worst-affected. 

Their findings come just weeks after the government voted through an amendment to the Environment Bill which vowed to place a duty on water companies to reduce sewage discharges.

Hugo Tagholm, chief executive of SAS, said the group’s findings were “outrageous, but not surprising”, with the government “having so far failed to take concrete action” on sewage pollution.

Sewage pollution in Britain’s waterways has been ongoing for several years, with water companies discharging raw sewage into rivers and seas to avoid the material backing up into people’s homes. 

Water companies are able to get permits for this purpose, but they are currently at the centre of a large investigation by the Environment Agency and Ofwat over allegations of illegal raw sewage discharges

Sewage spills are dangerous for human health as well as animal, plant and aquatic life. Just 14 per cent of England’s rivers were rated as being in “good” ecological condition last year.

SAS’s report examined the number of sewage discharge notifications recorded between October 2020 and September 2021, finding that there were 5,517 incidents in total – 87.6 per cent more than in the previous year. 

The group says that this estimate is likely to be “conservative” due to the fact that data is only available for coastal waters plus some water companies only provide data during the bathing season. 

Their analysis also cast doubt on the current ratings system used to determine the quality of bathing waters, finding a higher average number of sewage overflow discharges notifications at locations classified as ‘excellent’ (10 warnings) and ‘good’ (16 warnings) than locations classified ‘sufficient’ (5 warnings) and ‘poor’ (4 warnings). 

Harry Briggs, a regular surfer based in south-west England, has witnessed the dire state of sewage pollution first-hand, recalling one instance where “the water turned brown while I was in it”.

Recently, after surfing in “completely brown water” in Devon, he suffered with painful earache which later developed into residual tinnitus. He believes the pollution may have been responsible. 

If the wider public was aware of just how bad the problem is, he says, “it would shock people”

“This is the 21st century, not the 19th. We have the means to do something about this,” he said.

Briggs isn’t alone in falling ill after entering polluted water. SAS’s study also examined the correlation between discharge notifications and instances of people falling ill after entering the water. 

Their analysis found that one in three reports of illness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the same area.

Tagholm said of the report: “Time and time again, governments have claimed concern over the pollution of rivers and seas, but have so far failed to take concrete action to change the status quo.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences.

“Why should ordinary people bear the brunt of this greed whilst providers continue to decimate our natural environment?  

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