PMQs: Ed Davey questions Rishi Sunak on sewage
Last weekend, the World Triathlon Championship in Sunderland saw no less than 57 competitors fall ill with sickness and diarrhoea.
Aquatic horror stories like this are being reported across the country with increasing frequency – often tied to what looks like an unprecedented amount of sewage being released into Britain’s rivers and seas.
One salient fact leads the way: Environment Agency (EA) data show wastewater was discharged over 300,000 times in 2022 – equivalent to roughly 800 times a day.
Campaigners, the public, their representatives in local and national Government and even the water companies themselves agree: this is too much and something should be done.
It isn’t, however, anything new — we just didn’t know it was happening, Express.co.uk can reveal.
READ MORE: Photos show ‘sewage’ pouring into sea near popular beach where people swim in
No body of water is spared, some 15,000 storm overflows operate across Britain
How much sewage is being released?
In short: 1.75 million hours last year – about 200 years’ worth.
Although this is substantially less than the 2.67 million hours of monitored discharges in 2021, it remains a tenfold increase on levels seen just five years earlier.
The EA described the 2022 figure as “totally unacceptable.” Yet this uptick is far from the full story.
Why is this happening?
In 1989, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sold off England and Wales’ water and sewage industry for £7.6billion (£17.9billion) – making Britain the first country in the world to do so. The patchwork of 11 private monopolies we know today was born.
Swathes of the sewer network date back to Victorian times, but the number of toilets, bathrooms and kitchens pouring into these pipes has increased dramatically since then.
In the event of a downpour, Combined Sewer Overflows (CSOs) act as an emergency valve that can be opened to prevent dirty water from backing up into homes.
Legislation makes it clear, however, that these are to be used in “exceptional circumstances” only.
Britain’s private water suppliers have a monopoly in the areas they serve
How have things got so bad?
The Met Office says there is some evidence to suggest climate change is making extreme rain more common, which could explain some of the rise in CSO usage.
Last year, the Environmental Audit Committee’s assessment of river water quality read: “The sewerage system is overloaded and unable to cope with the increasing pressures of housing development, the impact of heavier rainfall, and a profusion of plastic and other non-biodegradable waste clogging up the system.”
It noted that there had been investment in the network since privatisation, but not at an adequate pace.
More recently, Brexit and the pandemic have also had a noted impact. The disruption to the supply chain of chemicals used to treat wastewater led the EA to issue temporary waivers permitting the release of not-fully-treated effluents into the environment.
But this still doesn’t explain the sudden uptick in the past few years.
The single largest driver behind the sharp increase in recorded sewage discharges is, in fact, the equally sharp increase in the number of devices installed to record them. Industry and charities alike echo this point.
In 2016, just 862 of Britain’s 15,000-odd storm overflows had so-called Event Duration Monitors (EDMs) in place. By 2022, this figure was 13,080 – 15 times higher.
Water UK, the sector’s trade association, told Express.co.uk this “huge increase in monitoring” means a “much higher proportion of spills are now detected – only ten percent of overflows were monitored a few years ago, compared with 90 percent today and 100 percent by the end of the year.”
With this in mind, the mean number of spills per CSO in a given year is a far more judicious way of determining whether more sewage is actually being released.
Nationwide, an average of 35.4 spills per monitor were tracked in 2019, 32.6 in 2020, 29.4 in 2021 and 22 last year.
So is water quality actually worsening?
Raw sewage contains harmful pathogens that can have serious consequences for human health. It also floods natural habitats with nutrients that facilitate algal blooms that harm plants and animals.
Changing testing methods make historical water quality comparisons difficult. Looking at the past few years only yields mixed results.
In 2020, not a single river in England and Wales was classified as being in overall good health, according to The Rivers Trust. Last year’s House of Commons committee similarly concluded none were contamination free.
Some 400 areas designated as bathing waters in England – in the sea as well as in rivers and lakes – are regularly tested for E coli and intestinal enterococci by the EA throughout the summer season.
Back in 2021, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) claimed: “In the early Nineties, for example, just 28 percent of bathing waters met the highest standards in force at that time.
“Based on data from 2019, 98.3 percent of bathing waters now meet the minimum standard, with 93 percent reaching the highest standards of ‘Excellent’ or ‘Good’.”
In 2022, these rates had fallen slightly to 97.1 percent meeting the minimum standard and 72.1 percent being classed as “Excellent”.
Much ado about nothing?
No. Simply, instead of sewage pollution becoming suddenly rampant, greater transparency has enabled campaigners to shed intense light on such Victorian practices ongoing for decades.
Josh Harris, head of communications of marine conservation charity Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), told Express.co.uk: “The tireless efforts of campaigners have pressured water companies to open up, shining a light on the appalling extent of their sewage dumping.
“Add in the industry’s lack of investment in its creaking infrastructure and you begin to understand the reason for the shocking scale of the sewage scandal. They say that sunlight is the best disinfectant but it’s clear we’re going to need a lot more than sunlight to clean up the stinking mess that water companies have made of our rivers, lakes and seas.”
In May, Water UK put out an unprecedented apology saying campaigners were “right to be upset about the current quality of our rivers and beaches” and vowed to invest £10billion to reduce discharges.
By the time of the local elections, water quality was on the minds of many voters and the issue shot to the top of the political agenda.
Surfers Against Sewage staged a paddle protest earlier this year
The crux of improvements to the current system revolves around infrastructure investment and harsher penalties for excessive CSO use.
Industry regulator Ofwat claimed the water companies’ current performance was “simply not good enough.” It said: “We have pushed companies to take urgent action to cut sewage discharges and have recently announced new measures to penalise companies that fail to fully monitor their storm overflows.”
The Government has instructed firms to fit all of their storm overflows with monitoring devices by the end of the year.
Ofwat added: “Over the last few years, we have imposed penalties of over £250million and we are currently running our biggest ever investigation into six companies on sewage spills. We will keep pushing on all fronts to bring about the improvements that the public rightly expects.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We have been clear that volume of sewage being discharged into our waters is utterly unacceptable. That is why our Plan for Water sets out increased investment, tougher enforcement and tighter regulation to tackle every source of river and sea pollution.
“We have scrapped the cap on civil penalties, set stringent targets for water companies and the EA has launched the largest criminal investigation ever into potential non-compliance at wastewater treatment works.”
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This notice was published: 2023-08-08 10:00:00