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Rivers and oceans are being treated like ‘open sewers’ by water firms, charity claims

Oceans and rivers are being treated like ‘open sewers’ with more than 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents discovered in the past year, campaigners claim.

The annual Water Quality Report by campaign group Surfers Against Sewage tracked sewage discharges into public bathing waters across the UK in 2019 and 2020.

The charity says most of the cases of water pollution came from water firms and some involved incidents that caused swimmers to become seriously ill. 

The UK missed its 2020 target for UK seas to meet Good Environmental Status, failing 11 out of 15 indicators of good marine health.

About 86 per cent of rivers and inland waterways in England also failed to meet Good Ecological Status, according to the water quality campaign group.

‘The report underlines the woeful state of water quality in the UK and the drivers of the destruction of our blue habitats,’ the group added.

Oceans and rivers are being treated like ‘open sewers’ with more than 3,000 raw sewage pollution incidents discovered in the past year, campaigners claim

Sewage incidents were reported across the UK in bathing water areas, with Southern Water expected to have the highest number of emergency outflow incidents, but they failed to report the majority - only sending out 79 notifications compared to over 600 in 2019

Sewage incidents were reported across the UK in bathing water areas, with Southern Water expected to have the highest number of emergency outflow incidents, but they failed to report the majority – only sending out 79 notifications compared to over 600 in 2019

As part of the report Surfers Against Sewage also tracked some of the most severe pollution cases, and in one incident two beach-goers required antibiotics for stomach problems in Bournemouth and near Penzance.

‘We have the right to an environment that is not harmful to our health and is protected for the benefit of present and future generations,’ said Lew Pugh, UN Patron of the Oceans who himself became ill after swimming the Thames in 2006.  

This year, the importance the natural environment to both physical and mental health has been brought to forefront of public attention, the charity said. 

‘Yet recent reports by the European Centre for Environment & Human Health indicate that we are just as likely to get sick from poor water quality as we did in the 1990’s. 

‘Furthermore, surfers and water users are increasingly being exposed to antibiotic resistant bacteria – one of the world’s biggest emerging health threats,’ they wrote.

In this year’s report, Surfers Against Sewage showcased 153 water user health reports from people falling ill after using the our rivers and ocean for recreation.

Reports included cases of gastroenteritis; ear, nose and throat infections; eye infections and in some cases, more serious long-term health effects.

In 2019, 98 per cent of UK Bathing Waters met minimum standards, but despite this the country ranked just 25th of 30 European countries for the quality of our Bathing Waters, the charity wrote in its annual water quality report.

‘What is not often published is that only 66 per cent of UK Bathing Waters were rated as “excellent”, far below the average of 87 per cent of coastal Bathing Waters meeting the same standard across the rest of Europe.’

A spokesperson for Surfers Against Sewage said there were incidents from many water firms, but called out Southern Water specifically, saying they failed to issue sewage spill notifications for the majority of 2020.  

‘In fact, 21 per cent of total reports of ill-health submitted from within Southern Water’s boundaries,’ the spokesperson added.  

In 2019 Southern Water sent out 650 notifications of sewage being pumped out to bathing water areas, but in 2020 there were only 79 as the firm failed to make the announcements

In 2019 Southern Water sent out 650 notifications of sewage being pumped out to bathing water areas, but in 2020 there were only 79 as the firm failed to make the announcements

In 2019 there were 690 sewage spill notifications from Southern Water, but only 79 so far in 2020, with the company saying ‘notifications should have been sent but frustratingly they weren’t’.

Surfers Against Sewage CEO, Hugo Tagholm, said water companies are putting profits before the need to protect 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,’ he said.

‘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.’

Tagholm said the water companies should invest more in infrastructure to reduce the use of the emergency sewage overflows that pump waste into bathing water.  

A spokesperson for Southern Water told the BBC that these overflows help to prevent the ‘misery of internal flooding for our customers’.

The company added that it was investing £1.7 billion in its wastewater network. 


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