Climate change and the sewage scandal

When it rains, excuses pour. Water companies are blaming changing weather patterns for their inability to handle increased rainfall. In 2008, Ofwat was already warning that preparations needed to be made. Have water companies adapted? No. Instead, they've prioritised lining shareholder pockets over people and planet.

Time and time again, water companies will blame an increase in heavy rainfall on their dated sewerage systems being unable to prevent sewage spewing into our waterways. Some observers ask how water companies are responsible for the changing weather patterns impacting sewerage systems. The answer is… they knew it was coming. Have they prepared for it? No.

We all know they’ve been paying shareholder dividends and through-the-roof CEO bonuses for years, all whilst sewerage infrastructure crumbles. However, the water industry has known since at least the 2000s that climate change will alter rainfall patterns and that they have needed to urgently change their methods. The lack of investment we’re dealing with now won’t even allow us to keep up with the status-quo, let alone prepare for a changing climate.

The report

Over 15 years ago, in 2008, a report was published by Ofwat addressing the impacts of climate change on the water sector, titled “Preparing for the future – Ofwat’s climate change policy statement.” Ofwat is the water service regulation authority for England and Wales (Scotland’s is the Water Industry Commission, and Northern Ireland’s is the Utility Regulator). Since then, there have been three investment cycles where the water industry has failed to prepare for climate change sufficiently. What are we left with? A water industry unprepared and failing to deliver on environmental targets, casting blame on a changing climate that we all knew was coming.

Climate change warnings

One HUGE thing to highlight from this Ofwat report is a warning that combined sewerage and rainfall systems won’t be adequate to cope with increased rainfall. Coincidentally, these are the same CSOs (combined sewer overflows) that are now pumping hours of sewage into our waterways nationwide: “The principle that combined (foul and surface water) sewerage systems should accommodate future flows is unsustainable in the long-term context of climate change. This is because sewerage systems have finite capacity and it would be prohibitively expensive – both financially and environmentally – for them to be expanded continually to mirror rainfall growth.” In other words, Ofwat told water companies to move away from CSOs to something more financially and environmentally appropriate as they would not be able to cope with the changing weather patterns.

As we’ve seen in most recent years, water companies aren’t able to cope with even minor rainfall. Some sewage overflows are operating when there’s been no rain at all. In the report, Ofwat advises water companies to adapt to increase the resilience of our sewerage infrastructure:

One of the major challenges to adaptions in a challenging climate is how to make sure that water and sewerage services are resilient enough to cope with extreme events.”

On maintaining serviceability, Ofwat note: “We expect companies to continue reporting clear and accurate data that shows how their assets are performing and to develop forward-looking asset management plans to maintain serviceability.” Instead of forward-thinking investments, polluting water companies dished out £1.4 billion to shareholders in the year ending 2022. Water company self-monitoring is in such a state that the government are planning to remove that privilege and leave monitoring to the Environment Agency.

Even if all carbon emissions were held at today’s values, we would still be facing the impacts of climate change for years to come. This is something water companies needed to act on years ago, we’re already way behind.


And whilst some water companies have started to include nature-based solutions in their projects, others are building more concrete storage tanks. Even worse, ‘grey’ infrastructure solutions involving pouring concrete are relatively carbon intensive, contributing to climate change. The The government are waking up to the mismanagement of water company cash cows, and are putting the pressure on for them to act quickly. What we really need to move forwards is laid out in our manifesto below:

  • Enforce the law: We have the regulations and laws we need to End Sewage Pollution. Now we must enforce them
  • Stop pollution for profit: Water companies’ first responsibility must be to the environment, not their shareholders and executives .
  • Prioritise high risk pollution: Take immediate targeted action to tackle the highest risk pollution events.
  • Empower a nature led approach: Harness the power of nature to End Sewage Pollution.
  • Reveal the truth: Deliver UK wide transparency about sewage pollution.

Support our calls? Share our manifesto with your local MP: The End Sewage Pollution Manifesto – Surfers Against Sewage (

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