Exeter, Devon UK • May 28, 2024 • VOL XII

Exeter, Devon UK • [date-today] • VOL XII
Home Features Flushed Away: The State of our Waterways

Flushed Away: The State of our Waterways

Katie Matthews evaluates the worrying levels of pollution in UK waterways, and considers how we got here.
3 min read
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Image: barnyz via Flickr

In 1989, under Thatcher’s wave of public selloffs, England and Wales’s waterways were privatised. When water became a private enterprise, the regulations around the discharge of sewage were loosened. The result has been a gradual slide into environmental destruction.

An investigation by the Observer suggests that over 90% of freshwater habitats of England’s rivers are in unfavourable condition thanks to countless incidents of private water companies dumping raw sewage, rather than disposing of it in a proper manner. The government attempts to reign in the water companies by fining them, but this is having little impact – the regulators have clearly lost control.

Generally, it is suggested that by selling state-owned services, they become more efficiently run thanks to the profit motive. However, the issue with this is that when profit becomes the primary focus, concern for the environment falls by the wayside.

A Guardian investigation found that there were more than 384,000 discharges of raw sewage across England and Wales in 2022. This is not only damaging to our river ecosystems, but to human health. 75% of UK rivers are unsafe to swim in, and pose a serious risk to human health, as widely reported by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS). Human sewage harbours pathogens such as E.coli, which can be capable of causing serious health issues

A Guardian investigation found that there were more than 384,000 discharges of raw sewage across England and Wales in 2022

SAS recently conducted a survey that found 55% of Brits who have swum in UK waters have fallen ill at least once. The pathogens can cause infections of the skin, eyes, ears, chest, and throat, as well as gastroenteritis or even hepatitis. Incidents should be reported to the environmental regulators, so that they are aware of just how often it is negatively affecting human health.

This all has a massive impact on small businesses, as water sports companies are unable to run as regularly or as successfully. The fear of catching severe illnesses has put lots of Brits off getting out on the water.   

A recent Oxford study suggested that sewage pollution causes some wildlife to deteriorate, and others to unusually flourish. More tolerant groups of microspecies and algae are flourishing in the polluted environment- one, cyanobacteria, can produce toxic chemicals that will put our rivers in a critical position. The study argues that the waterways are impacted by sewage discharge more than they are by agricultural runoff. With high organic nutrient levels, a ‘sewage fungus’ colonises the waterways which reduces oxygen levels thus impeding anaerobic respiration in marine life. 

In defence of causing all this damage, water companies often cite lack of quality infrastructure, but they seem little concerned with spending the money to improve it, whilst in the 21/22 financial year they paid out £966 million in shareholder dividends.

So what about Exeter, and the famed River Exe? Exe Estuary Management Partnership has mapped out the environmental state of the Exe estuary. There are various consistent pollutants of the Exe, including agricultural fertilizers which runoff from land, particularly after storms or heavy rain. These subsequently lead to a lower water quality due to their nitrogen and phosphorous content. Natural metals derived from formal mining, an industry the area has a long history with, are also a leading polluting agent. These factors are leading to a less stable ecosystem. However, the Exe is generally considered a safe area for swimming.  

SSRS (Safer Seas and Rivers Service) has a real time app which warns of unsafe swimming conditions in seas and rivers. Exmouth has currently been assessed as ‘very unsafe’, yet the environment agency has classified it as having excellent bathing conditions. This classification is based on ‘samples from the last four years’. In the last 5 weeks, however, there has been pollution risk and sewage discharge alerts. The app makes a point to blame Southwest Water as ‘responsible for this discharge.’

Whilst many problems may seem far from home, the pollution of our rivers and oceans is clearly affecting the local area. What’s concerning is that statistically, it looks like the UK is doing well in terms of healthy waterways, but the conditions are worsening. As you can see on the sewage discharge and pollution risks map below, conditions are most concerning in the Southwest, along the coast of South Wales, Cornwall, Devon, and the Southeast.   

Image: Surfers Against Sewage via Google Maps

If you are wanting to visit some of Devon’s beautiful coastlines, check the SSRS app before you do. There have been 48 reports of sickness at Exmouth and in the last year there have been 54 alerts, and 11 since fresher’s week began.  

The government’s River Basin Management Plans creates assessments of ecological and chemical damage to waterways, but whilst there is lots in the way of classifications, there is little in the way of action – restoration programmes do exist but are often severely underfunded.  

Two organisations employed for this are the Environment agency and Natural England, who are working on 30 rivers, but are not able to work effectively due to the financial limitations.  

Nationally, the Environment Agency are responsible for monitoring discharge and making sure they don’t exceed quota. It is fair to blame Thatcher for the initial privatisation, but the subsequent lax regulation of water, and the private companies’ lack of care for the environment has been paramount in the damage caused both to people and the environment. 

It is fair to blame Thatcher for the initial privatisation, but the subsequent lax regulation of water, and the private companies’ lack of care for the environment has been paramount in the damage caused both to people and the environment. 

Action can be taken by contacting local MPs or water companies themselves. The blatant disregard for our waterways is leading to severe short and long-term effects on both the environment and society, which cannot be ignored. The issues that have arisen from the privatisation of both water and the railways foreshadow a dark fate if the NHS were to go in the same direction.

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