We shouldn’t have to protest for sewage-free seas - water companies, be ashamed

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There’s been plans, promises and apologies, but only when the situation has already reached its worst point

Reporting on the amount of sewage being dumped into UK rivers and beaches over the last year, and interviewing those who are part of the fight to stop this practice, has opened my eyes to the scandal that has been going on for decades.

The work of environmental group Surfers Against Sewage to continuously monitor sewage releases on beaches around the UK is admirable and has sadly shown the reality of how much our waterways are being polluted on a daily basis.

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Attending the anti-sewage protest at Essex Bridge in Staffordshire on Saturday (20 May) I met so many passionate activists who truly care about the state of our environment and want to see better regulations in place. I really felt their anger.

One campaigner told me all the wildlife and fish are dying because of the pollution while another said she had fallen ill due to swimming in the River Trent, and had seen an increase in pollution over the years.

Speaking to an underwater filmmaker, Mark Barrow, who films sewage in UK rivers, I discovered what truly lies beneath some of our rivers - with the likes of condoms, wipes, tampons and sanitary towels floating about.

Attending the anti-sewage protest at Essex Bridge in Staffordshire I met so many passionate activists who truly care about the state of our environment. (Photo: Isabella Boneham) Attending the anti-sewage protest at Essex Bridge in Staffordshire I met so many passionate activists who truly care about the state of our environment. (Photo: Isabella Boneham)
Attending the anti-sewage protest at Essex Bridge in Staffordshire I met so many passionate activists who truly care about the state of our environment. (Photo: Isabella Boneham) | Isabella Boneham

It is disgusting and I echo a campaigner from Saturday’s protest who told me she is really angry at the government for letting this happen and thinking this is okay.

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Last year there were more than 300,000 ‘spill events’ in England and recently the River Lim in Dorset, which was fondly remembered as being full of fish and having a lush habitat, has now been declared ecologically dead. South West Water has said it is seeking to build a bigger storage tank at its sewage works in order to prevent such discharges.

But why wasn’t this done years ago? Why is it taking serious sewage spills and rivers being declared dead for firms to take action?

Many activists at the anti-sewage protest took to the river demanding to be able to swim in clean water, without raw sewage floating around and without a potential of becoming seriously ill. The fact the public are having to demand this is atrocious.

And only now has the government seemingly begun to step up its game by announcing a £10 billion investment plan to upgrade the 19th century Victorian sewer systems which become overwhelmed quickly by heavy rain, releasing untreated water into rivers and seas.

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Storm overflows were designed only to be used in extreme circumstances but they have come to be used on an increasingly regular basis and even during dry weather.

Last year SAS analysed meteorological data from the Met Office as well as spillage data and found that 146 dry spills were detected over a 12-month period, with 95 of these at locations where water quality is classified as “excellent”.

A solution to the problem would be to separate foul drainage from storm drains but under our current system of water industry regulation, water companies do not have enough money to invest in the infrastructure needed.

 I echoe a campaigner who told me she is really angry at the government for letting this happen and thinking this is okay. (Photo: Isabella Boneham)  I echoe a campaigner who told me she is really angry at the government for letting this happen and thinking this is okay. (Photo: Isabella Boneham)
I echoe a campaigner who told me she is really angry at the government for letting this happen and thinking this is okay. (Photo: Isabella Boneham) | Isabella Boneham

Recently water companies issued a sorry statement over the amount of sewage being discharged outraging campaigners - and rightly so, but it is too little too late.

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The firms know the seriousness of what is happening and the scale of the pollution, they know the public are angry - yet they have done nothing to rectify the situation and any progress has been very slow.

Water companies have been caught out through fines. Southern Water, for example, was fined £90 million in 2021 after pleading guilty to almost 7,000 illegal discharges between 2010 and 2015, while Anglian Water pleaded guilty and was hit with a fine of £2.65 million after allowing untreated sewage to overflow into the North Sea.

But still the large scale of sewage discharges continues, and there has been plenty of evidence and figures to show the situation has been getting progressively worse.

Just this week it was announced that South West Water (SWW) is being investigated by the water regulator Ofwat over the accuracy of information it provides on leakage and water consumption.

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Six water companies are already being investigated over concerns that they may be breaching sewage regulations. It is never-ending.

To make matters worse, water firms will be increasing the public’s water bills to help fund the new investment plan to upgrade sewer networks.

After all the public campaigning to try and end the awful practice of sewage dumping, we are being asked to pay more on our water bills to fund the investment - a problem which most likely would have carried on if it was not for the tireless efforts of campaigners to raise awareness.

Firms will also be hiking the public’s water bills while all English water companies will pay an estimated £14.7 billion in dividends by the end of this decade, according to analysis for the Observer.

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Billions will be going to shareholders while families’ water bills will rise despite a cost of living crisis. It is shocking. Instead of profits footing the much-needed investment, it is going to shareholders - as always the rich getting richer.

Alongside this the government’s ‘storm overflow reduction plan’ only promises that spill events should be reduced by 40% by 2040. To achieve this, the government said it will add an extra £12 on average annual household bills by 2030, increasing to £42 a year by 2050.

It is not good enough. There’s plans, there’s promises, there’s apologies - but only when the situation has already reached its worst point.

Until there’s a controlled grip on the nationwide scandal, a reduction in sewage discharges, water companies putting the environment before profit, the fight for clean rivers and seas will continue.

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