As we slide into the depths of winter and temperatures plummet, we could be forgiven for forgetting that just a few months ago we sought every opportunity to plunge ourselves through the waves and into refreshing rivers to cool down and escape the summer heat.
And yet, as many of us were trying desperately to limit our everyday water use, the same companies that imposed restrictions on us were dumping sewage onto our beaches and riverbeds. Over the summer, sewage was poured into the UK’s most popular swim spots more than 5,000 times. That’s a total of 15,000 hours of sewage spewing into beaches and rivers we love to swim, surf and play in. And shockingly, no one knows just how much sewage is poisoning the large majority of our waterways that are not designated as “bathing waters”.
We’re constantly told that water companies have to discharge sewage into the environment to avoid it backing up into our homes. It’s the Victorian infrastructure we’ve inherited, they claim, conveniently ignoring their decades of underinvestment. Another excuse that is frequently used is that the combined nature of our sewage system means sewage is mixed with surface water. When it rains heavily, sewage systems become overwhelmed. But we keep getting reports from across the country of sewage being discharged when there has been very little or no rain.
So, this year, at Surfers Against Sewage, we’ve tried to lift the lid on what’s really going on. Firstly, it’s crucial to state that the legislation on this issue is, somewhat ironically, crystal clear: sewage should only be discharged in heavy rainfall. But we found evidence of 143 cases where sewage was dumped into designated bathing waters when there had been no rain at all for at least two days. And that’s just from investigating sewage discharges water companies tell us about through our Safer Seas & River Service app. What we’ve found is clearly just the tip of the turd-burg.
And this is just the latest stink arising from the sewage scandal. Water companies have been knowingly dumping raw sewage into waterways for years, deliberately failing to deliver on their obligation to treat wastewater and protect the environment. Last year, Southern Water was handed a £90 million fine for pumping sewage into the sea in order to avoid financial penalties and costs of upgrading and maintaining infrastructure. And now, six water companies are being investigated for breaches in permit condition at over 2,000 sewage treatment works. The system is broken.
When water companies were privatised in 1989, they were handed debt-free companies and millions of pounds to invest in infrastructure. But since then, they have been hollowed out. An eye-watering £60 billion has been built up in debt whilst almost £70 billion has been paid out to shareholders in the past 30 years. According to a recent Guardian investigation, over 70 per cent of England’s water is now owned by shareholders abroad. Instead of investing in desperately needed infrastructure, profits are simply being shipped off-shore.
But I’ve heard ministers speak on this issue, you may think – the government must be taking action. Think again. The deregulation of the water industry means that water companies are now monitoring themselves. They are left to let us know when, where and for how long they dump sewage into waterways. That’s like asking a criminal to tell the police every time they commit a crime. And to add insult to injury, the Environment Agency has had its funding slashed by 50 per cent over the last decade, leaving it chronically unable to enforce legislation and hold polluters to account.
And all the while, we continue to get sick from sewage and precious water habitats spiral into near-terminal decline. The government has set a target to reverse the decline in nature by 2030. How will this ever be achieved if we continue to allow sewage to be dumped into the environment?
This year, tens of thousands of people have risen up across the country to express their fury at the sewage scandal and to demand an end to sewage pollution. From national charities to local communities, river swimmers to ocean paddlers, we’re beginning to turn the tide on the profiteering polluters of the water industry. Our voice is being heard but we must harness this momentum as there is still much to achieve. We need an urgent overhaul of the government’s sewage action plan with bigger, bolder and broader targets. We need environmental regulators enabled to hold polluters to account. We need a financial regulator that enacts on its powers to cut CEO bonuses and dividend pay-outs. And we need water companies to invest in meeting statutory duties to protect the environment. The writing is on the wall – we must, and we will, end sewage pollution. The future of our rivers and the ocean depends on it.
Amy Slack (above) is a campaigner for Surfers Against Sewage, a grassroots environmental charity based in Cornwall, dedicated to the protection of the ocean, waves, beaches and wildlife (see sas.org.uk)