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Is there an end in sight for the UK’s sewage crisis?
The sewage crisis has united the UK in disgust—but will learning how we got into this mess help us to get out of it?

The UK’s sewage crisis is an extremely emotive subject for many. And it’s not just people on Twitter. Even the Daily Express has registered its disgust. A look at the figures, and it’s easy to see why. Over five years between 2016 and 2021, raw sewage dumps into UK seas and rivers increased by 2,553%. The reality of that bites hard. Beaches off the south-west coast, once a haven for swimming and surfing, are now frequently off-limits due to sewage contamination. It’s affecting businesses and lives. And the effect it’s having on nature is difficult to fathom—especially as water quality testing of UK rivers is at a ten-year low.  

So when will it end? Finding a solution means identifying causes. What those might be varies depending on who you ask.  

One thing’s for certain, it’s the water companies who are doing the dumping. But they say they are faced with a choice between dumping sewage or letting it back up into our homes and businesses. Then there’s the other option of upgrading the infrastructure at massive cost to consumers already struggling to pay energy bills.

You might wonder how we’re in a situation where sewage backing up into our homes is a realistic prospect? That’s thanks to a lack of investment in our sewage infrastructure to enable it to cope with the rising population. Who is responsible for that? That’s where the waters get murky—ownership is split between water and sewage companies, local authorities, property owners and the highways agency. It might be difficult to point the finger, but when water companies announce shareholder payouts of £57 billion, the lack of investment rankles.  

So, what about Brexit’s role in all this? After the supply chain issues caused by Brexit, the government allowed water companies to dump raw sewage when they can’t get the chemicals they need to treat it. So, there’s that. But another sad truth is, sewage discharges were already on the rise—but we’re only just now becoming aware of it. It was only in 2021 that Southern Water was fined £90 million for more than 6,000 unpermitted sewage discharges between 2010 and 2015.  

Whether you want to blame Brexit or not, membership of the EU means that the UK was subject to standards on bathing water and beach quality. And it’s true that the UK managed to turn around its reputation for being ‘the dirty man of Europe’ while it was a member of the EU. In 2016, for instance, more than 95% of UK beaches met the standard set by EU. Out of the EU, we only have the government’s word that standards will be maintained—and when beaches are closed due to sewage contamination, that’s a concern for many.

What about the Environment Agency? As the environmental arm of the government, surely they should be weighing in on this? You’d hope so. But since responsibility for monitoring sewage discharge was moved from the Environment Agency to the water companies themselves, sewage isn’t so much their jurisdiction. Add to that funding for the Environment Agency has been cut by two thirds since fiscal austerity began in 2010 and you’re left with a department with severely diminished powers to act.  

But maybe all this weighing up of causes is just muddying what is absolutely crystal clear—that polluting our waterways and beaches with raw sewage is unacceptable and must stop. And it will only stop when more people become fully aware of the scale of the issue and push it up the agenda. Because, as climate emergencies keep reminding us, there aren’t any bigger fish to fry than the environment we live in—and if we don’t clean up our waterways fast, there won’t be any fish at all.

Tim Horrocks