Dumping of Sewage continues in UK in spite of commitments

30 May 2024 by The Water Diplomat

The situation in the United Kingdom regarding the dumping of untreated sewage into the environment – first reported by The Water Diplomat in November 2022 - is not improving. Controversy over wastewater discharges over the past years had led to the adoption of a new environmental law in 2021 and a plan to reduce stormwater overflows. Amongst others, utilities were required to demonstrate a progressive reduction in raw sewage overflows of 40% by 2040 relative to current levels. In August 2022, sewage spills had led members of the European Parliament to lodge a complaint with the European Commission, warning that the UK was threatening health, marine life and fisheries by discharging raw sewage into the English Channel and North Sea. However, after stabilising between 2020 and 2022, the situation deteriorated again sharply in 2023, with a 54% increase in spillage as compared to the previous year, according to the Environment Agency. Since 2020, Thames Water alone has discharged 72 billion liters of contaminated water into the Thames.

In a study published earlier this year, the Environment Agency indicated that the average number of spills per weir had risen from 23 in 2022 to 33 in 2023, and the total number of discharges had risen from from 301,091 in 2022 to 464,056 in 2023. Another worrying fact is that the duration of spills has increased by a factor of 2 to reach a cumulative total of 3.6 million hours. Today, only 13.9% of weirs in Great Britain meet the 0 discharge standard; overflows have become the new norm.

This situation has multiple consequences. The first and foremost of these is the impact on public health : the U.K.'s Chief Medical Officer has referred to it as a “growing public health problem”. Thousands of people fell ill last year because of the quality of bathing water. In 2020, the UK had the worst bathing water in Europe, with only 17.2% of beaches judged “excellent” (for information, the second worst country on this issue is Poland, with a rate of 55.9% - Greece and Cyprus are at 97.1%). The same problem applies to river and lake water quality. Only 14%of British waters had waters with ‘good ecological status’.

The economic consequences are also numerous. Many beaches in seaside resorts such as Brighton and Hove and the Isle of Wight had to be closed. Sporting events such as the famous annual Thames swimming race, held every July since 1890, had to be cancelled due to the severely degraded quality of the water. Consumption of shellfish from local shellfish farms has become risky. Only 9% of shellfish farming sites complied with water quality standards, almost systematically requiring depollution treatment.

Storm overflows, designed to discharge water overflow during heavy storms, are now being diverted from their original purpose, due to the dilapidated state of water treatment infrastructure. Since the privatisation of water utilities in 1989, there has been underinvestment in wastewater treatment and safe disposal infrastructure.

One of the responses from British authorities has been to institute more monitoring. In 2023, weir monitors were installed to collect data. Both regulator Ofwat and the Environment Agency keep a close eye on more than 2,000 wastewater treatment plants to ensure that they comply with standards. Numerical targets have been set for operators up to 2050. Operators will have to invest £11 billion to reduce discharges by 2030. 60 billion pounds of investment has been announced by the public authorities over the next 25 years to stop illegal dumping. Other stakeholders are also calling for massive reforestation to channel runoff during major climatic events, as well as the creation of new wetlands throughout the country.