What has happened this week?
The return of heavy rainfall in parts of the UK has overwhelmed the UK’s Victorian sewage system, meaning raw sewage is being released into the sea.
Pollution warnings were in place at more than 40 beaches and swimming spots in England and Wales – mainly on the southern coast – after downpours followed months of little or no rain.
It rekindled public outrage in recent years at the volume of raw or partially-treated sewage being pumped into the UK’s rivers and coastal waters.
Of the many images and videos shared widely, sewage water could be seen gushing into the ocean at Bexhill Beach in East Sussex on Wednesday. Southern Water said electrical issues at a wastewater pumping station caused the discharge.
Are they allowed to do it?
The practice is long-standing. Water companies are permitted to discharge untreated sewage into waterways in exceptional circumstances, such as during the heavy rainfall seen this week.
The return of downpours on Tuesday put pressure on the sewage system because the dry ground is unable to absorb the water as quickly. This also explains why flash floods have been witnessed across the country.
The overflow systems are used to protect homes and businesses from flooding, and the water companies say only a small percentage of the discharge is wastewater.
Is sea sewage safe?
Jim McManus, president of the UK’s Association of Directors of Public Health, told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme on Friday pointed out it was 175 years since his first predecessor tried to stop sea sewage.
He said that stomach, chest, ear, eye infections, e-coli, salmonella and even hepatitis A were are risk of being contracted through contact with dirty water.
He said: “It harms the economy, it harms ecosystems, it harms health.
“We need a sewage system fit for the 21st century that stops discharging sewage wherever possible.
“There are health impacts being seen and sometimes you see GPs reporting on those every year.”
One water company was criticised after telling swimmers to “use your judgment” on whether to wade into the water.
Katy Taylor, the chief customer officer at Southern Water, told Good Morning Britain: “We’re not saying to customers: ‘Don’t swim or don’t go in at all’. We’re saying: ’There has been a release, this is how long that release has been.
“It rained, so it’s 95 per cent rainwater, you then need to use your judgment on whether you feel it’s safe to go swimming or not’.”
Feargal Sharkey, the former lead singer of The Undertones and an environmental campaigner, challenged the chief executive of Southern Water company to drink a glass of sewage the firm claims to be largely rainwater.
He said he will donate £1,000 to charity if water boss Lawrence Gosden accepts his dare.
Has it got worse?
Labour has accused the government of allowing water companies to “cut corners”, after new figures showed 1,076 years’ worth of raw sewage has been dumped into UK waterways since 2016.
Figures obtained by the party from the Environment Agency through Freedom of Information requests indicate that, since 2016, raw sewage has been pumped into the natural environment for a total of 9,427,355 hours.
Labour warned that the figures, which equate to 392,806 days’ worth of raw sewage discharge, probably do not cover the full scale of pollution.
Shadow environment secretary Jim McMahon attacked water companies and the government over the findings.
“Families across Britain are trying to enjoy the summertime,” he said. “Whilst water companies are paying billions in dividends, the Tories have allowed them to cut corners and pump filthy raw sewage on to our playing fields and into our waters.”
How are bosses rewarded?
Figures complied by the Liberal Democrats show the average water company boss’s total pay rose by 20% last year.
The party found the 22 water company executives across Great Britain were paid £24.8 million, including £14.7 million in bonuses, benefits and incentives in 2021/2022.
Using information from the annual returns of each water company, the Lib Dems found the combined bonuses and salaries per water company boss rose by a fifth – or 21% – from 2020/2021 to 2021/2022.
This is an average rise in executive pay of nearly £200,000, with the average bonus alone rising by £100,000.
Lib Dem environment spokesperson Tim Farron said: “This is a national scandal. These disgusting polluting habits have made beaches unsafe in the middle of the summer holidays and harmed precious British wildlife.
“Hosepipe bans could have been avoided this summer if these water company CEOs bothered to invest in their rusting pipes rather than stuffing profits in their pockets.
“They are putting profit over the environment. Frankly, the whole thing stinks.”
What is the government doing about it?
The government faced a backlash last year over new post-Brexit legislation governing water quality.
Ministers were forced to U-turn after rejecting an amendment to the Environment Bill which would force water companies to stop allowing untreated sewage to enter British waterways, saying it wanted a “progressive reduction” in the practice that has been happening for decades.
Earlier this month, a story in the Telegraph suggested that official plans to reduce the level of raw sewage discharged into waterways had been temporarily shelved. However, the government now appears to be sticking to the September deadline.
A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs pointed to a statement released on its website on Thursday, which said the government is “taking action” on sewage discharges, with the current administration being the first to set an expectation on water companies to significantly reduce discharges from storm overflows.
What do the water companies say?
A spokesperson for Southern Water said: “Thunder storms brought heavy rain which fell on to parched ground and couldn’t absorb surface run-off, meaning that more rain than usual overwhelmed our network.
“This led to some overflows – which are used to protect homes, schools, businesses and hospitals from flooding – spilling excess water into the sea in parts of west Sussex, including Seaford.
“These discharges are heavily diluted and typically 95 per cent of them are rainwater.”
He continued: “We are dedicated to significantly reducing storm overflows and are running innovative pilot schemes across the region to reduce the amount of rainfall entering our combined sewers by 2030.”
A spokesperson for South West Water said: “The investments and changes we are already making across our network are delivering real results, including a one-third reduction in pollution incidents last year to the lowest number in 10 years.
“We are committed to bringing this down further year on year by strengthening our round-the-clock response, increasing resourcing levels by 25 per cent, and investing £330 million over the next three years in our wastewater network.”
Anglian Water, which supplies Lincolnshire and also provides waste water services at Southend, said: “Combined storm overflows (CSOs) were originally designed to protect homes and businesses from flooding during heavy rainfall, like we saw last night.
“In parts of our region last night, we saw almost 100ml of rain fall in only a few hours. That’s the equivalent of well over a month’s worth on to ground that is essentially like concrete.
“As it’s been dry for so long, intense rainfall on to hard ground will not soak in and instead runs straight off.”
A spokesperson said any discharges would predominantly have been rainwater, adding its BeachAware system had notified SAS of the discharge “as a precaution so people can make educated decisions about swimming in the sea”.
She added: “However, we recognise that they are no longer the right solution when sewers become overloaded with rainwater.
“We’ve been dealing with CSOs for years, tackling those which pose an environmental risk and working through the rest.
“Between 2020 and 2025, we’re investing more than £200 million to reduce storm spills across the East of England and, as part of our Get River Positive commitment, we’ve promised that storm overflows will not be the reason for unhealthy rivers in our region by 2030.”