From raw sewage to agricultural run-off, discover what’s causing the UK water quality crisis and why.
Pollution plagues our rivers, seas and coasts, making us sick, spoiling our favorite swim spots, destroying delicate ecosystems, killing our wildlife, and threatening ocean recovery. Sewage pollution is everything we flush down the loo or wash down the drain that is released into the environment through sewer overflows, or that washes off the land and roads. Poor waste management is also to blame.
The sheer volume of pollution entering our water means the UK consistently ranks as one of the worst European countries for coastal water quality. Meanwhile, only 14% of our rivers warrant ‘good’ ecological status.
How is sewage pollution impacting our rivers and seas?
Despite years of investment, sewage and agricultural pollution still plague rivers and the ocean. Huge volumes of contaminated effluent and run-off mean the UK is ranked last in Europe for bathing water quality.
Rivers are also struggling with the effects of this pollution with just 14% meeting good environmental standards and none reaching good chemical status. A damning report by a parliamentary committee labelled England’s rivers as a dangerous ‘chemical cocktail’ of sewage, agricultural waste, and plastic. Poor water quality damages natural ocean ecosystems and habitats such as kelp beds and seagrasses, reduces biodiversity and the ocean’s ability to store carbon. Slicks of sewage can cause huge algae blooms, starving water of oxygen and resulting in the death of river and ocean species.
This pollution puts water users at risk of contracting harmful illnesses including viruses and antimicrobial resistant bacteria. A report by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) highlighted that sea bathers in the UK remain just as likely to become ill from seawater as they were in the 1990s. Poor water quality also prevents individuals enjoying the mental and physical wellbeing benefits associated from engagement with the ocean environment.
What’s causing the sewage pollution crisis?
The UK’s antiquated sewerage system is woefully inadequate. Water companies have failed to invest to protect the coastal and river environment. They instead rely on a network of around 18,000 licensed sewer overflows to routinely discharge raw sewage into rivers and the ocean.
Polluters have simply been profiteering off pollution. Water companies have paid out an eye watering £60 billion in dividends to shareholders over the last 30 years. And fat cat CEOs are often granted six figure pay packets every year. And to make things worse, the government are now allowing water companies to self monitor their environmental performance resulting in ever increasing abuses of the system. The weak enforcement of existing regulation from consistently underfunded and under resourced environment agencies means there is no effective driver to ensure water companies change their behaviour.
And as if the stench of the sewage stink could not get any worse, the current water quality testing regimes designed to protect water users and the environment are set up to fail us. Evidence shows that we have a water quality testing regime that willfully discounts and ignores the worst pollution events in the country and thus misleads the public about the safety of the waters