How sewage got into UK rivers and seas, and how to fix it

Step onto a British beach and you might notice a warning sign saying there's sewage in the water. After years of deregulation and budget cuts for environmental agencies, our waters are at crisis point. But sewage is just one part of a much bigger problem.


Water is life. Instinctively, we all know it’s true, don’t we? We need clean water for human health and to drink and wash with. Marine ecosystems are a vital part of our environment and also depend on clean, healthy water. As an island nation, we of all people should understand this, and we do – the British public at least. But it appears our government and water companies didn’t get the memo.

In the summer of 2022, from Bexhill to Newcastle, the public was rightly outraged at the sewage pumped into our waters in record amounts. It turned up on our beaches and in our rivers too. How on earth did this happen?

Why is there raw sewage in UK rivers and seas?

Our sewer system carries rainwater, and wastewater from toilets, along the same pipes to the water treatment works. When there is too much rainfall, water companies are allowed to discharge overflow from these pipes into our rivers and seas. This should happen rarely, but data – and experience – show this is happening more and more.

Water companies are not doing enough to tackle this problem. The Environment Agency found that 90% of sewage monitors at seasides are broken. In many locations, they’re not installed at all. Over summer 2022, dozens of beaches were closed to swimmers due to the high levels of toxic waste. And there may have been many more that went untested.

Protester in a 'happy poo' emoji costume stands on a beach. Two dogs and their owner are walking by.

A dog walker next to a Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) demonstration in Newquay in 2022. SAS called on the government and UK water companies to end sewage pollution of the country’s bathing waters by 2030. © Hugh R Hastings / Getty

Rivers are affected too. Every single one of England’s rivers now fails to meet safety standards, with few deemed to be in “good health”. This is partly due to sewage flooding our waterways. But chemical and agricultural pollution also play a part.

More and bigger industrial farms are one of the biggest drivers of water pollution in the UK. It’s partly that factory-farmed animals, like chickens and cows, produce lots of poo. But the industrial farm model also relies on chemicals to keep the land producing crops. Chemicals get sprayed onto overworked farmland. And industrial farms become more reliant on these sprays as soil health worsens. Our rivers suffer as livestock waste and chemicals leach from farms, polluting the water with a chemical cocktail.

Find out if there is sewage in your local river or waterway

Funding cuts gave us more sewage dumps

This sewage crisis is what we see of a bigger problem: decades of deregulation from our governments.

As Environment Secretary, Liz Truss oversaw £235 million in cuts to environmental funding. That included a £24 million cut to monitoring services to ensure water companies don’t dump more sewage. Raw sewage dumps have doubled since those cuts.

England’s nine water and sewerage companies had the worst environmental performance for years in 2021. Serious pollution incidents rose to their highest level since 2013. And six water companies were in need of “significant improvement” after ratings of 2 stars or less.

Now, as Prime Minister, Liz Truss is ripping up green planning laws. These regulate how much phosphate and nitrates are in waterways, which must get considered when building houses. If rules on these chemicals are weakened, housing developers won’t need to worry about pumping extra waste into our rivers, which are already at breaking point.

Before and after image. One side shows a busy beach, littered with waste by the water. The second photo shows the same beach but cleaned up. Two boys play in the clean water.

Before and after: Blackpool beach in 1990 was covered in raw sewage and other waste. In 2016, the beach is clean due to the EU’s Bathing Water Directive. © Vanessa Miles / Greenpeace

Without power and funding, environmental agencies aren’t able to hold water companies and other polluters to high standards. Improving the sewage monitoring network is a start. But environmental agencies need to be able to properly penalise polluters when they break the law. The Environment Agency is calling for:

  • Courts to impose much higher fines for serious and deliberate pollution incidents – although the amount a company can be fined for environmental crimes is unlimited, the fines currently handed down by the courts are often less than a chief executive’s salary.
  • Prison sentences for chief executives and board members of companies responsible for the most serious incidents.
  • Company directors struck off so they cannot simply move on in their careers after illegal environmental damage.

Proper funding would mean these agencies can protect nature by closely monitoring the performance and actions of water companies. Cutting red tape is not the answer – we need more protections for nature, not less.

Solutions to sewage pollution

The good news is, there is plenty our government can – and should – do to properly protect our waters. Here are three solutions to the UK sewage and water pollution problem:

  • Properly fund environmental agencies, such as the Environment Agency in England and Natural Resources Wales and the water regulator OFWAT. Decades of budget cuts have seriously weakened and undermined these agencies. Funding them allows closer monitoring of the performance and actions of water companies.
  • Give environmental agencies legal powers and authority. So they can hold water companies to account for their failures, like dumping sewage. The regulator, OFWAT must also ensure water companies invest in infrastructure before giving financial returns and bonuses. There cannot be financial returns for polluters.
  • Set more ambitious legal targets to clean up water quality. In England and Wales, the government’s current water target proposals completely miss out key sources of pollution. And there isn’t even a long-term target for overall water quality. This isn’t good enough. We want a target for 100% of waterways to reach “clean water” status by 2037.

Our government is unlikely to do this without more pressure from the public. That’s why we’ve launched a petition calling on the government to prioritise the health of our waters as a matter of urgency. Want to join us?

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