A ‘car crash’ of different disasters has left UK with among the worst bathing conditions in Europe, campaigners warn

Campaigners are attributing privatisation, extreme weather, and politics to collectively creating the water pollution crisis.  

Almost all of Britain’s waterways are polluted. In 2023, sewage spills into England’s waterways more than doubled. Recently released figures from the Environment Agency show that there were 3.6 million hours of spills compared to 1.75 million hours in 2022.

A separate report from the Rivers Trust confirms the ‘desperate state’ of the country’s seas and rivers.

The State of Our Rivers Report concluded that no single stretch of river in Northern Ireland or England is in good overall health. The report follows an earlier damning verdict by a House of Commons Committee report in 2022, which concluded that no river in England was free from chemical contamination.

Within Europe, Britain’s polluted waterways have been described by Loughborough University as an “anomaly,” which have fallen behind other European countries in reporting significant improvements in bathing water quality in recent decades. In France, for example, authorities have spent billions of euros improving storm water and sewage treatment in an effort to clean up the River Seine for Olympic swimming events this summer.

As research lays bares the deterioration of the state of the nation’s waterway quality, anger is mounting over the dumping of untreated sewage into Britain’s seas and rivers, which are now ranked among the worse countries in Europe for water pollution.

A ‘car crash’ of causes

Campaigners are attributing a ‘car crash’ of privatisation, extreme weather, and politics to collectively creating the water pollution crisis. They note how sizeable profits within the water industry have been distributed to shareholders, but very little investment or improvements to infrastructure and services have been made in recent decades.

This is coupled with a growing number of extreme weather events over the last decade, which are attributed to climate change. This month’s Storm Kathleen was the eleventh named storm in eight months. Conservationists have expressed concern over the frequency of such extreme weather events.

“It is worrying to see how frequent these ‘extraordinary’ weather events are becoming,” said Steve Nash, Wild Planet Trust’s Chief Impact Officer.

During heavy rainfall, the sewage handling capacity cannot cope with the demand. An underinvested and inadequate system is being overloaded, which is leading to more sewage spilling into seas and rivers.

“You either allow sewage to back up into people’s homes and businesses, back up the pipes – which is obviously completely and utterly unacceptable – or you open the other end of the pipe and release it into nature,” explains Charles Watson, founder and chair of campaign group River Action.  

Louis Reddy, policy officer from environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), shared some alarming statistics.

“Last year, there were 1,271 discharges of sewage into waterways a day across England alone. So we know that this is a huge systemic issue, that water companies are relying on waterways to deal with the sewage that they can’t face treating,” said Reddy.

On top of this, between 2009 and 2022, government funding for the Environment Agency (EA) dropped by 50 percent, as analysis by Prospect, a trade union representing professionals in the public sector, shows.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said that in 2022 the agency had been left in the “grips of a recruitment and resources crisis making it harder to hold polluters to account.”

“Unless this is fixed, sewage in bathing waters will only become more common,” he warned at the time.”

Governmental response to sewage spillage and polluted water is likely to be an influencing factor in the upcoming general election.

A survey by River Action in 2023 found that just 6 percent of respondents were happy with the government’s efforts to protect the country’s waterways. A separate survey by Survation found that the government’s handling of sewage spills is likely to influence the way more than half of people vote in the general election.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward

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