Sewage scandal dominates media agenda as activists fight for clean seas and rivers

A person in a black wetsuit and wearing a black gas mask surfs a brown muddy wave.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Water Resources Act, introduced in 1991 to govern water quality in the UK. Why is it, then, that we are still battling against devastating levels of pollution in our seas and rivers?

Surfers Against Sewage’s (SAS) annual water quality report exposes the shocking volume of sewage outflows into rivers and along the coast, and draws links between pollution events and sickness reports from surfers, swimmers and bathers.

The report reveals that over 5,000 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies between 1 October 2020 and 30 September 2021, each marking a discharge of raw sewage into seas and rivers. That’s an increase of 87.6% from last year’s figure. More than 3,000 of these discharge notifications were issued throughout the bathing season – which means the millions of us who swim in the sea or in rivers over the summer are putting our health directly at risk. In fact, SAS’s report links one third of sickness reports after bathing to a pollution event in the corresponding area.

It’s a stark reminder of the insufficiency of the UK’s sewage management, and exposes how little value our government and water companies place on our coasts and rivers by allowing such destruction to occur.

These revelations come amidst heated debate in and out of Parliament around the role of water companies in polluting our seas and rivers. Just this month, MPs voted to approve an amendment that states that water companies must make a ‘progressive reduction in the adverse impact of discharges from the undertaker’s storm overflows.’ According to SAS, this is a watered-down version of an amendment tabled by the Duke of Wellington, which would have given rise to a systemic overhaul of sewage management in the UK.

SAS have been campaigning on water quality for 30 years, and they’re not stopping any time soon. We’re proud to work with this passionate and tenacious team of campaigners and volunteers who work tirelessly to protect our rivers and ocean. Whether it be drawing the attention of G7 leaders and the world’s media to the issue of plastic pollution in the ocean, or coordinating a UK-wide clean-up of 1 million miles of coast and countryside, their campaigns never fail to make an impact.

And this one is no exception. SAS’s water quality report has dominated the news agenda, with the findings appearing in most national papers including the Guardian, the Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Daily Mail. Coverage of the report appeared in national broadcasts across the BBC, ITV, Channel 5 and Sky News, and was syndicated to 180 regional papers and over 50 regional radio stations. Overall, the report has received over 800 pieces of coverage and counting – proving the importance of this issue to the British public.

SAS CEO Hugo Tagholm sums up the situation perfectly:

“The public outrage around the sewage amendments in the Environment Act show just how deeply people want action,” he says. “The government now states it has the legal tools to hold water companies to account – we will be watching and campaigning to make sure this is the case. The proof will be when sewage emissions are drastically reduced or eliminated, and our rivers and coastline meet the standards that the water industry should have helped deliver many years ago.”
Hugo Tagholm
CEO, Surfers Against Sewage

If you want to learn more about the state of our seas and rivers, you can read SAS’s full report here. If you’re inspired by the work of SAS and want to help them in their campaigning efforts, you can start by downloading their Safer Seas and Rivers Service (SSRS) app. This app – through which data for the report was gathered – provides alerts about pollution events and helps bathers make informed decisions about where and when to swim. But it also allows you to email MPs and water company CEOs directly through the app to highlight pollution alerts in your area – activism right at your fingertips.