Britain’s polluted waterways: A bad story getting worse

3 Aug 2023
4 min read
Swimmers protesting about sewage pollution in UK seas and rivers.

There have been plenty of headlines in recent months and years about raw sewage being pumped into our waterways, rivers and seas. The sad reality is, they’re in a pretty bad way and efforts to make them better are happening too slowly.

As an environmental scientist, my first work experience was monitoring bathing water quality on beaches so I care passionately about this subject, which is why I recently spoke to ITV’s Tonight show about the problems that not only stink but can really make people sick.

Staggering figures

There were 389,000 discharges of raw sewage into UK waterways in 2022, that’s over a 1,000 a day on average.

75 percent of UK rivers pose a serious risk to human health, with 62 serious pollution incidents reported by UK sewage and water companies in 2021.

Bad news for swimmers and nature

A pipe pouring brown water into a river contributing to polluted waterways

Water users and swimmers in polluted waters risk experiencing skin rashes, conjunctivitis, diarrhoea and vomiting.

Sewage was dumped into designated bathing water over 5,000 times between 15th May and 30th September 2022 – which is known as the UK bathing season – with water companies incurring more than £4 million in fines from prosecutions.

Only 7 out of 10 of the UK’s bathing beaches are rated as excellent – which means nearly a third need improvements and sadly, no river in England is free from chemical contamination.

Sewage in water either freshwater inland or seawater at the coast, encourages algal bloom that can release toxins and block other plants from growing. The algae also use up the oxygen in rivers and streams so fish and other species can struggle to survive due to the high biological oxygen demand. This is particularly bad during drought, when water levels are already very low due to lack of rain. At sea, the bacteria in untreated sewage can cause harm to marine wildlife including shellfish that can become unfit for human consumption.

Scotland in trouble too

It’s a similar picture in Scotland too unfortunately. Sewage was discharged into seas around Scotland for more than 113,000 hours last year painting a “terrible picture”, the Marine Conservation charity warned. 

Only 123 out of a total of 3,617 of Scotland’s storm overflows are currently monitored for spills – just four percent. The charity has said they don’t know “quite how bad it is” and they’ve called on the Scottish government to request that Scottish Water report and monitor all discharges from storm overflows by 2026 at the latest. Sewage was dumped in Scottish waterways more than 14,000 times last year – a staggering rate of nearly 40 incidents a day on average. Approximately 47million cubic metres of waste was released into Scottish waters last year – equal to nearly 19,000 Olympic swimming pools.

Government and regulators

Unfortunately, things look unlikely to change quickly. The government is behind on plans to meet the Water Framework Directive requirement for all rivers to reach good status by 2027 and that’s a directive that has been transposed into UK law.

With all these sewage spills and failings on water quality, it might come as a shock to hear water companies paid out a total of £965 million in shareholder dividends in the 2021 to 2022 financial year and water company CEOs took home £16.5 million in the same period.

The Environment agency recently released their latest annual Environmental Performance Assessment, five of the nine UK water companies are at two stars out of a potential four and only Severn Trent gets the top marks. Put bluntly, the situation isn’t great.

Antiquated sewage systems need updating

The key issue is that we’re routinely having raw sewage pumped into our seas and rivers creating harm to humans and nature alike. However, the government report on water quality in rivers from 2021 also highlights the UK’s sewerage system is outdated and wasn’t built to handle the increasing populations we continue to have. This increase in use, coupled with urbanisation that sends more water down our drains and climate change, which brings extreme rainfall events means the overflow pipes are increasingly being used.

This all makes for damage for our waterways, the nature and ecosystems that rely on them and people – like you and me – who want to enjoy them but there are solutions available.

Hope for the future?

The Thames Tideway Scheme, colloquially known as the Super Sewer is a 25-kilometre combined sewer under construction under the tidal section of the River Thames in London. It’s set to open in 2025, and it’ll drain 34 of the most polluting combined sewer overflows. The tunnel will transfer sewage to treatment works before it’s released into the Thames estuary. It’s estimated it’ll capture and treat up to 39 million tons of untreated sewage that currently flows into the Thames. That’s incredible and holds huge promise for the ecosystems that rely on the Thames.

Now imagine if we could have similar, but smaller super sewers built across the UK to clean up all our waters?

Our ecosystems would recover and flourish, UK waters would attract more holiday makers and we could all safely enjoy the water that surrounds and runs through our beautiful British countryside and coasts.


The information in this article was correct at the time of writing and is provided for guidance only. Please see the full disclaimer in our terms and conditions.

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