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Sewage threat to British rivers

‘Multiple failings’ mean 40% of rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage
River Wandle, South London

More than a third (40%) of rivers in England and Wales are polluted with sewage, adding to one of ‘the most urgent environmental crises facing the UK today.’

Water companies and the government are failing to prevent avoidable sewage pollution, leaving our rivers unhealthy and putting wildlife and people at risk.

These are the findings of a nine-month long investigation into the sewerage system by the conservation charity WWF.

Multiple failings

Nearly 18,000 (17,684) licensed emergency sewer overflows – managed by water companies across England and Wales – are meant to discharge raw sewage directly into the environment only during extreme rainfall, but WWF has found they are discharging far more frequently.

A total of 1,902 pollution incidents were reported by the nine water and sewerage companies operating in England alone, a first rise in incidences since 2012. There was also an increase in the most serious pollution incidents, all of which were associated with sewage.

‘The problem of sewage pollution stems from multiple failings, including lack of proper planning and investment in our sewerage system; shortcomings in monitoring, risk assessments, operational practice and staff culture and insufficient regulation. And many of us are also contributing to the problem of sewer overflows by flushing items such as wet wipes, sanitary products and kitchen fat down toilets and drains.’

Head of campaigns at WWF

Companies compared

South West Water, which operates in Devon, Cornwall, and small areas of Dorset and Somerset, reported by far the most sewage pollution incidents in 2016, with 115 sewage pollution incidents per 10,000km.

This was followed by Yorkshire Water, which reported 46 sewage pollution incidents, and Northumbrian Water which reported 38.

At the more positive end of the scale, United Utilities, which operates in the North West of England, reported 22 sewage pollution incidents.

The tip of the iceberg

This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg because wastewater legally discharged continuously from sewage treatment works – also managed by water companies – is not being treated to high enough standards to protect rivers.

This is despite the fact that sewage pollution causes rapid algae growth, starving rivers of the oxygen that insects, fish and other wildlife need to survive. This in turn also affects animals such as otters and kingfishers at the top of the aquatic food chain.

The state of our rivers

These findings come just months after Thames Water was fined £20m for sewage spills in its region over 2012-2014, which is by far the largest fine any UK water company has ever been landed with.

The water industry and agriculture are the main sectors responsible for failing river health, and four out of five rivers (80%) in England and Wales are currently failing to achieve ‘good ecological status’. The regions most affected by wastewater pollution are served by Thames Water, Southern Water and Severn Trent Water.

The Environment Agency is scaling up monitoring on sewer overflows and there is an initiative, called the 21st Century Drainage Programme, to assess the capacity of sewers, develop a framework for wastewater planning and address sewer misuse by the public.

At present neither the Environment Agency nor water companies know the total volume of sewage being discharged into the environment, which is a huge concern.

Action from government

Through its #NatureNeedsYou campaign, WWF is calling on the UK government to act on its commitment to deliver a ‘green Brexit’ by ensuring at least 75% of our rivers reach ‘good ecological status’ by 2027.

This target for improvement was set by EU legislation which the UK helped shape, but as we prepare to leave the EU the UK government isn’t remotely on course to achieve it.

In fact, the situation is getting worse – the number of healthy rivers in England has declined from 27% in 2010 to 14% in 2017. If this rate of decline continues, by 2025 we might be left with no healthy rivers.

‘No one party can fix this problem. Water companies clearly have a key role to play, but we also need greater action through regulation – it should not be legally acceptable to pollute our rivers or frequently discharge untreated sewage.’

Head of campaigns at WWF

A threat to health

All sorts of bacteria, pathogens and parasites in untreated sewage can threaten people’s health too. Anyone whose hobby or profession brings them into contact with potentially infected water – surfers, rowers, anglers and wild swimmers, for example – is at risk of a mild to bad case of gastroenteritis such as E.coli or salmonella, which can be serious.

Diseases such as leptospirosis, septicaemia and hepatitis A are all linked to sewage pollution and can sometimes be fatal.

WWF has launched an interactive map where people can find out the state of their local river and send a message to their MP to ask him or her to put pressure on Environment Secretary Michael Gove to act.

Click here to join WWF and demand the UK government protects and restores rivers in England and Wales.

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