Friday 6 November 2020

Water health report

Written by Jess Berlin

Water health report

A new environmental report, by ocean conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage, reveals water companies are regularly discharging untreated sewage into UK waters, damaging the environment, and creating significant health risks.

The Water Quality Report revealed some shocking truths, including that water companies were responsible for almost 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents into bathing waters in England and Wales from licensed Combined Sewer Overflows from 1st October 2019 to 30th September 2020, impacting some of the most frequently visited beaches in the country. The UK has missed its 2020 target for UK seas to meet Good Environmental Status, with 11 out of 15 indicators of marine health failing and only 16% of inland waterways in England meeting Good Ecological Status, the report points further to the shameful state of water quality in the UK.

Surfers Against Sewage tracks these discharges with real-time data obtained from water companies and provides pollution alerts from regulators for over 370 beaches through the Safer Seas Service app. The report describes the environmental impact of worsening water quality but also reinforces the risk to human health. Water users are being increasingly exposed to antimicrobial resistant bacteria. SAS’s report showcases 153 water user’s health reports submitted to SAS from water users falling ill after using the water. Reports included cases of gastroenteritis; ear, nose and throat infections; eye infections and in some cases, long-term health effects.    

Other alarming factors highlighted in the report include Southern Water’s failure to issue sewage spill notifications for the majority of 2020, In comparison to the 690 sewage spill notifications issued by Southern Water in 2019, they only managed to issue 79 alerts this year. In addition to sewage discharge notifications, a further 2,642 pollution risk warnings were issued by regulators, indicating coastal pollution from agriculture and urban environments, and a potential risk to public health.  Furthermore, there are fundamental flaws in the water quality testing regime and Bathing Water classification process. Despite some water quality progress over the last 30 years, the UK still ranks 25th out of 30 European countries for Bathing Water quality. Almost 35% of Bathing Waters still need some form of improvement to be elevated to the “excellent” standard.

Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage, says: “Water companies consistently put profit before fully protecting the environment. This report demonstrates that rivers and oceans are being treated like open sewers as combined sewer overflows are used as a routine method for disposing of sewage, instead of in the exceptional circumstances under which it is permitted. Even worse, some – like Southern Water – are not even notifying the public when they do this so people cannot make informed decisions about their own health. This feels particularly horrifying in a year where we are all battling the COVID19 pandemic, a virus that is being tracked through sewage works.”

Mark Lloyd, Chief Executive of The Rivers Trust, says: “Rivers are being polluted by sewage and agricultural pollution hundreds of thousands of times annually, putting open water swimmers and recreational water users at risk, and degrading ecosystems. We know only 14% of rivers are at good ecological status and many have been declining in quality over recent years. It is vital we act now, by demanding that our government enforces existing legislation, tightens the loopholes, and allows the necessary investment to manage sewage and other pollutants far better. Protecting and improving our waterways is imperative for people, wildlife and the economy.”

Campaigners are calling for a number of important changes. Firstly, an enhanced water-quality testing regime, which will allow testing for emerging viruses and antimicrobial resistant bacteria as well as accurate real-time water quality information available all-year round. Secondly, there is a push for world-leading water quality legislation that exceeds EU water quality standards as well as sewage legislation setting ambitious and legally binding targets to end untreated sewage discharge in all Bathing Waters by 2030. Thirdly, campaigners expect an improvement in Nature-based solutions to sewage pollution with increased investment and associated targets for the restoration of natural habitats to reduce pressure on the water systems and help prevent sewer overflows, whilst increasing biodiversity and tackling climate change. Lastly, campaigners want investment from water companies in sewage infrastructure to eventually end the use of emergency sewage overflows. 

Campaigners will hand in the #EndSewagePollution petition to Secretary of State for the Environment, George Eustice MP, digitally on Tuesday 10th November. The petition represents tens of thousands of voices and cross sector organisations backed by millions including the Rivers Trust, Outdoor Swimming Society, British Canoeing and the Wildlife & Countryside Link. 

 Read the full report 

 Find out more about Surfers Against Sewage and the #EndSewagePollution coalition and take action 

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