The Stench of the Sewage Scandal Grows Stronger

Today, we reveal yet further shocking evidence of the sewage pollution crisis plaguing the UK’s seas and rivers through our 2021 Water Quality Report. Our findings categorically show that water companies are increasing the discharge of harmful amounts of sewage into the environment with devastating consequences to the health of people and planet – all whilst they claim that improvements are being made. Our report uncovers that:

  • 5,517 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies over a 12-month period, an increase of 87.6%.
  • 3,328 of these discharge notifications were issued throughout the bathing season.
  • One in six days have been rendered ‘unswimmable’ due to sewage pollution during the official bathing season alone.
  • One in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area.
  • Currently only 14% of UK rivers are deemed to have ‘good’ ecological status.
  • Six out of eight rivers tested pose a continuous serious risk to human health.

These findings come just days after the shocking announcement that water companies are at the center of a major investigation by financial and environmental watchdogs the Environment Agency and Ofwat after admitting they may have illegally released untreated sewage into rivers and waterways. The stink grows stronger by the day.

And once again, there appears to be a leading culprit, the worst of a bad bunch – Southern Water. After failing to provide hardly any sewer discharge notifications last year, this year we reveal that over the course of the bathing season, Southern Water issued 1,949 sewage discharge notifications, at an eyewatering average of 38 notifications per bathing water. Furthermore, almost 30% of the 286 health reports submitted to us came from Southern Water’s operating area.

Our report also throws into question the classification system used by regulators to indicate the quality of designated bathing waters. We’ve found a higher average number of sewer overflow discharges notifications at locations classified as ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ than locations classified ‘sufficient’ and ‘poor’. This is opposite to the expected trend, suggesting that bathing water classified as ‘excellent’ and ‘good’ may in fact be experiencing significant sewage pollution.

Commenting on our report, Chief Executive, Hugo Tagholm, said:

“The findings of our report are shocking and outrageous, but they are by no means unexpected.

“The fact is, water companies continue to increase profits whilst causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences. Instead, eyewatering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.

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

“The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action. The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case. The proof will be when sewage emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated, and our rivers and coastline meet the standards that the water industry should have helped deliver many years ago.”

People Power is fuelling our fight

Our campaigns are fought from the beachfront to the front benches, with an army of citizen scientists fuelling our action. This year, we empowered Ocean Activists to undertake water quality testing, where rivers flow into the sea close to a designated bathing water, and users of our Safer Seas & Rivers Service app continued to submit health reports. Our citizen science found that:

  • 75% of river sites monitored had elevated E. coli levels, all returning an overall poor water quality result throughout the bathing season. Are water companies failing to meet requirements for all treatment works and associated sewer overflows 10 miles inland of bathing waters to have bathing water grade treatment (i.e. UV treatment)?
  • One in three reports of sickness after bathing were correlated with a pollution event in the corresponding area, identifying a clear link between discharge notifications and human health.

These are truly shocking findings but our collective voice is starting to be heard and forcing change. The public outrage of the #SewageScandal saw almost 30,000 emails being sent to MPs via our #EndSewagePollution campaign action, demanding legislation that legally obligates water companies to reduce sewer discharges. This people powered surge led to a much stronger Environment Act than government tried to pass. We now have requirements on water companies to: provide real-time year-round data; report annually on sewer discharges; monitor water up and down stream of sewer overflows; and for government to put in place an action plan to address sewage pollution. And, most importantly of all, government was forced to u-turn so that there is now a legal duty for water companies to reduce the harm from sewer overflows.

However, our fight is by no means over. We have momentum, the water companies are on the back-foot, we must keep up the pressure to #EndSewagePollution for good.

How you can help?

Amplify the outrage! Read, comment and share these findings and make it clear to your MP, government and water companies that you won’t stand for this environmental neglect any longer.

Across the country, people power is also making waves through groups protesting against the sewage scandal in their local area. If you’re joining a protest, here are a few tips:

  • Make sure you follow Covid restrictions, guidelines and best practice and be mindful of infection rates in your local area.
  • Share any event pages to help spread the word far and wide and get as many people attending as possible.
  • Check out the stats in our Water Quality Report about your local area in case any media are around.
  • Create clear, punchy placards and find a good backdrop to help any press photographers capture engaging shots that will make it into the papers
  • Tag @sascampaigns (twitter) and @surfersagainstsewage (Instagram) into any of your social media posts – making sure to use the hashtag #EndSewagePollution – we can help amplify your campaign
  • Have fun and stay safe!