Wild swimming is an increasingly popular activity in the UK but, with raw sewage being pumped into the country’s seas and rivers up to 800 times a day, there are growing concerns about health and environmental consequences.
Britain’s sewer system largely dates from Victorian times. At times of heavy rainfall, the volume of liquid in the sewers overwhelms the country’s infrastructure, risking flash floods of effluent. To avoid this, water companies release raw and treated effluent into seas and rivers, as often as once every two and a half minutes.
Since 2021, parliamentarians have voted on the problem several times but have failed to force through plans to make private water companies stop their practices of discharging effluent into waterways when sewer systems are at risk of overflowing.
2. What does the pollution mean for nature and humans?
Campaign group Surfers Against Sewage observes that the likelihood of falling ill with viruses and resistant forms of bacteria after swimming in the UK is now no better than it was 30 years ago.
The UK’s parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee recognises that less than 15% of the UK’s rivers meet “good” environmental standards. It reports that bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry causes sickness; microplastics and chemicals damage already-fragile river ecosystems, putting species like salmon, seagrass and kelp at risk; and a “build-up of high levels of nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, from sewage and animal waste, is choking rivers with algal blooms that reduce oxygen levels, suffocating fish, plants and invertebrates.”
I spoke to regular wild swimmer Henry Branson, a member of the East Sussex “Plucky Dippers.” He said, “I’m unaware of any member falling ill due to sea swimming. But I do avoid swimming in rivers after heavy rains, when sewage overflows and agricultural run-off are at their worst and, of course, waters are at their highest and most dangerous.” He also stated that he refuses to swim in the sea at times of year when algae blooms in the Seaford area, which is located between two river mouths. “Apart from any risk of illness, it stinks of rot and I dislike the way algae makes the water feel unpleasant and ‘soupy’”.
Would-be swimmers can check water quality on the Environment Agency’s swimfo site. A check at the time of writing indicated 14 coastal spots all around England and 2 inland areas where the official advice was against swimming. Swimmers should also always check tides, currents, temperatures and respect the force of the water.
3. Why don’t they update the sewer systems?
The cost of updating the UK’s sewer system has been estimated by the Conservative government in the hundreds of billions, which it says would be passed onto consumers. According to a government consultation document: “Complete separation of sewage and rainwater systems would remove the need for storm overflows, however this would cost between £350 billion and £660 billion. It would also cause significant disruption [because] most of the combined system runs under our towns and cities and would have to be dug up.”
However many experts agree there are other, cheaper ways to vastly improve the situation. An independent report for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs suggests retaining storm overflows and limiting the use of spills has been modelled at a much lower cost of between £5 billion and £280 billion.
What’s more, the Rivers Trust’s Christine Colvin, reported in The Guardian, has cast doubt on the government estimates, citing the wide distribution of values which undermines confidence in them. “Nobody is proposing digging up our entire sewerage network and starting from scratch,” she said.
Hugo Tagholm from Surfers Against Sewage goes further, describing the government’s £660bn figure as ‘misinformation’ designed to scare the public. “The figures are somewhere in the region of between £3.7bn and £62.bn to deal with the worst of the sewage pollution,” he said, adding, “This is well within the profits and dividends of these companies.”
Water News Europe points out that since privatisation in 1989, the UK’s water companies have paid their shareholders dividends averaging £50 billion, including £30.6 million in bonuses over the last two years, causing critics to accuse companies of putting profits before the environment and public safety.
4. Are there any consequences for water companies?
Ofwat, the UK water regulator recently ruled that companies had failed to hit targets and a dozen suppliers were fined almost £150 million. David Black, the watchdog’s chief executive, said: “Too many water companies are failing to deliver for their customers […] They need to take immediate action to improve their performance and rebuild trust.”
Despite this judgement and numerous Opposition Day votes attempting to pass legislation obliging water companies to clean up their acts, the UK parliament has so far been unsuccessful in making consumer voices heard. A survey by environmental non-profit group River Action has found, unsurprisingly, that 94% of the UK support action to improve river health by 2030, much sooner than most current directives.