Surfers Against Sewage urge continued investment and improvements in water quality from source to sea

In a week where new research warns about the increased risk to the health of seawater users, we also hear from the Secretary of State about the actions water companies must take to protect both people and the planet by improving water quality.

A study by the University of Exeter Medical school shows that despite significant investment resulting in an improved water quality in recent years, seawater is still polluted from sources including industrial waste, sewage and run-off from farmland. Sea bathing doubled the odds of reporting general ear ailments, and the odds of reporting earache specifically rose by 77 percent. For gastrointestinal illnesses, the odds increased by 29 percent. This represents a continued threat to water users health and shows that in spite of best efforts, more is needed to truly have clean bathing waters in the UK. Compared to non-bathers, sea bathers are 86% more likely to suffer from any illness.

We are of course in a far better position than we were 30 years ago, on the whole, bathing waters are considered to be an excellent standard, however, serious pollution incidents remain at a similar to that of the start of the decade. Michael Gove’s speech at the Water UK City Conference this week noted, “Improvement has stalled. Every year water companies are responsible for around 60 serious incidents of pollution – that’s more than one a week – and notably, the tally has barely changed in a decade.”

More needs to be done

We agree with the Secretary of State when he says “Overall, I believe that despite the undoubted gains in efficiency and investment since privatisation, the system is not working as well as it should.”

We continue to challenge water companies and the Government to ensure that people and the planet are protected when using our bathing waters and that the gains to the environment outweigh the gains to the water company pockets. Water companies have a duty of care to their customers and the environment above and beyond profits. The monopoly position of water companies means they must be transparent and accountable – in many cases, they are, however, we echo the view of the Government in saying “Far too often, there is evidence that water companies – your water companies – have not been acting sufficiently in the public interest.”

We recognise the continued investment and commitment of the Environment Agency to improve standards and ensure water companies do more to protect and improve our environment. In times where public spending budgets are tightened, the work can only go so far. Action needs to be led by water companies and it needs to be guaranteed by the Government. The 25 Environment Plan sets out minimising by 2030 the harmful bacteria in our designated bathing waters and continuing to improve the cleanliness of our waters; we will make sure that potential bathers are warned of any short-term pollution risks.

We believe that this target is too distant. Work needs to be done now, led by water companies to invest in protecting our environment rather than protecting their shareholder’s pockets. The consumer is paying and wants to see their monies directed fairly – the reality is that this is currently not the case.

Continued calls for year round real-time information

SAS continues to act on behalf of all bathing water users and work with the Environment Agency and water companies to provide free real-time information about risk to bathing waters. The Safer Seas Service can help to cut the number of illness incidents taking place as a result of bathing in polluted seas, by directing people to waters unaffected.

The Safer Seas Service requires time and investment as well as comprehensive support from everyone involved to provide as much information as possible to safeguard the public. Water companies must provide year-round information regarding their assets and the public must be informed when there is a risk to water quality as a matter of course. We want to see the Government hold water companies accountable now and not in 25 years time, by using them to drive forward improvements in our bathing waters rather than maintain the status quo. Water Companies must take the lead and show they are committed to protecting the environment and their customers, with pressure from the Government, consumers and NGOs, the time is now to prove they are using profits fairly to continue not only protect but enhance our environment.