Ocean Activists Challenge Water Companies on Sewage Pollution of the UK Coastline and Rivers

Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) activists gathered on Brighton beach on Saturday 2nd November in a protest against water companies on the levels of sewage they continue to discharge into England’s rivers and ocean. The protest marked the release the SAS 2019 Water Quality Report , which evidences and illustrates the threat of sewage pollution at some beaches and rivers.

The issue of poor water quality is returning to public consciousness and has been highlighted nationally by reports issued by both environmental charities and regulators. These reports have shown that water companies are performing consistently badly, with pollution events increasing and causing damage to local environments, wildlife, and putting human health at risk. Rivers and oceans are now at risk of being treated like ‘open sewers’ as underinvestment, population and climate pressures converge.

Over the 2019 ‘bathing season’ we tracked and reported on 1,784 sewage pollution events along the UK coastline in 2019. Based on precautionary health recommendations, which advise against bathing for up to 48 hours after a sewage pollution event, this equates to an estimated 10% of bathing days lost to sewage discharges.

This year Southern Water received record fines of £126 million for serious failures in their sewage treatment works and for deliberately misreporting its water quality performance. Despite these record fines, Southern Water was still responsible for the most sewage pollution events in 2019, with over 571 reported sewage pollution events.

At SAS, we believe that people should always be adequately informed and protected when they are using the sea and rivers for recreation.  People should not face elevated risks of illness because of sewage pollution generated by water companies. Where there is an unavoidable risk due to unusually extreme weather conditions, people should always be made aware of sewage pollution in real-time.

Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage says: “Damning evidence has emerged this year showing just how prevalent sewage pollution impacts are along our coastline and rivers. We have been campaigning for almost thirty years on this issue, with some great successes and progress in that time. However, the spectre of sewage pollution seems to be returning and the time for more radical action to protect our ocean, waterways and water users has come. Water companies must put the health of planet and people before the interests of shareholders.”


It is now widely recognised that use of rivers and coastal waters play an important part in human physical health and wellbeing. It is vital that accurate, transparent, and reliable information be given to the public to allow water users to remain safe. With a significant proportion of water recreational activities being undertaken throughout the year, it is more important than ever to provide water quality information year-round, not just during the official bathing season. Of course, it’s not just coastal waters affected by these sewage discharges but also inland rivers and waterways where a massive 89% of the UK’s of sewer overflows discharge. It is becoming increasingly critical that all water users have the same access to water quality information to help keep them safe, and that includes those that use rivers for their recreation and wellbeing.

There is a growing body of evidence that water companies are using rivers and seas to compensate for lack of capacity in sewerage infrastructure. It is time for radical action and investment to ensure that our ocean and rivers thrive with life, and water quality is improved for people’s health, wellbeing and enjoyment.

We are calling for:

  • Year round real-time water quality data for all coastal and riverine areas used for recreation and wellbeing.
  • A 75% reduction in sewage discharged into our rivers and seas by 2030, with a complete cessation of effluent discharged into areas used for recreation
  • Water quality legislation and enforcement to be strengthened to maintain and improve water quality standards and to end sewage emissions around the UK.