As water quality across the EU improves, the UK risks being turned into the ‘dirty man of Europe.’
Untreated sewage pouring into coastal waters around England made the headlines last month, as holidaymakers were warned to stay out of the sea at some of the country’s most popular beaches because of the risks to health from swimming among faeces.
In late August, more than 40 pollution warnings were issued at swimming spots across England and Wales, as intense rainwater overwhelmed systems.
Water companies in the UK have been accused of failing to monitor the amount of sewage being pumped into the seas at popular seaside spots.
In the wake of the sewage crisis scandal, environment secretary George Eustice announced that water companies will have to invest £56bn over 25 years in a long-term plan to tackle sewage discharges by 2050.
Under government plans, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water by 2035 and improve 75% of overflows discharging to high-priority nature sites.
A ‘cruel joke’
The strategy has however been labelled a “cruel joke”. Critics say that customers will end up forking the bill for the additional payments, as chief executives continue to receive huge bonuses. Analysis of the proposals by the Lib Dems shows that by 2030, there will still be 325,000 sewage dumps a year on UK beaches, rivers and lakes.
Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ environment spokesperson, said: “This is a cruel joke. The government is going to hike water bills to pay for cleaning up the mess made by water companies. The same companies who awarded their executives multimillion-pound bonuses this year and paid out over £1bn to their shareholders. Whilst they roll in the cash, we swim in sewage. The whole thing stinks.”
Abandoning international environmental regulations
Criticism of the government’s handling of the sewerage crisis is not confined to the UK. Three French Euro MPs recently warned that Britain is threatening human life, marine life and fishing by releasing raw sewage into the Channel and North Sea.
Accusing the UK of abandoning international environmental regulations, the three MEPs have asked the European Commission to seek “political and legal” measures to stop the pollution.
“We fear for the negative consequences on the quality of sea water that we share with that country and as a result on the marine biodiversity as well as fishing and shellfish farms,” Pierre Karleskind, chair of the European parliament’s fishing committee, Nathalie Loiseau, a former French Europe minister, and Stéphanie Yon-Courtin, regional councillor in Normandy, said in a letter to the environment commissioner, Virginijus Sinkevičius.
“Since Brexit, the United Kingdom has exonerated itself from [EU] environmental rules,” they added.
Britain’s water quality worse than most EU counties
Data shows that the water quality in Britain’s seas and rivers is worse than most European countries. 2021 EEA data on bathing water quality finds that, across EU member states, 85% of coastal and river bathing sites have ‘excellent’ water quality in terms of bacteria, pollution, and sewage presence. Austria, Croatia, and Greece boast even cleaner water, with 95% of bathing sites ranked ‘excellent’ in 2021.
As Britain no longer submits data to the EEA, information on water quality in the UK can be found through the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In 2021, data issued by Defra showed that just 70% of the UK’s 419 bathing sites were considered ‘excellent.’ Just five European countries – Albania, Estonia, Hungry, Poland and Slovakia, have worse water quality than Britain.
Though as the New Statesman reports, the data from Defra could be underestimating the extent of the UK’s water pollution problem, as in 2021, when the UK was still required to report to the European Environment Agency (EEA), out of 644 bathing sites submitted, only 66% were found to be ‘excellent.’
In fact, reports show that when included in EEA data, the UK was shown to ‘consistently perform poorly’ in the rankings, often appearing near the bottom of the table.
According to the EEA, the number of sites with excellent quality water has been increasing since the adoption of the Bathing Water Directive in 2006. The EEA says that improving water quality in Europe is due to large investments in urban wastewater treatment plants and improvements in wastewater networks.
While many EU member states have continued to make drastic progress in cleaning up their bathing quality over the past decade, in 2021, the UK government voted to permit legislation which will allow for sewage to be pumped into rivers and seas. Tories voted against an amendment to the Environment Bill for water companies to have a legal duty not to allow sewage to be pumped into water.
The amendment would have also forced water companies and the government to take “all reasonable steps” to avoid using the combined sewer overflows, which regularly release untreated waste into seas and rivers.
The legislation was proposed because, in 2020, raw sewage was discharged into waters more than 400,000 times, according to data from the Environmental Agency, over a total of more than 3.1 million hours.
The vote prompted furore among campaign groups, opposition MPs and created a storm on social media.
Campaign groups including Surfers Against Sewage said the legislation was crucial to ensure action to tackle sewage pollution started now.
Green peer Jenny Jones said she was furious about the vote, tweeting: “We peers put in protection for chalk streams, rivers and our beaches to protect them from the dumping of raw #sewage. Did your MP vote to take out that protection? If so, tell them how you feel!”
Ten months later, as Surfers Against Sewage log 654 notifications of sewage overspill from 171 locations, the UK, with its sewage-covered beaches, risks, as CNN reports, being turned into the ‘dirty man of Europe.’
Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward
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