The Great English Sewage Scandal

Ever heard of “sewage fungus”? Probably not. But it’s something to be aware of next time you feel like taking a dip in an English river.

Chances are you’ll be swimming in a toxic soup of untreated sewage that includes human excrement, condoms, sanitary pads, and toilet paper, not to mention microplastics and antibiotic resistant bacteria.

This according to The Guardian newspaper, who recently revealed that England’s nine water companies dumped raw sewage into rivers and watercourses on 204,134 occasions in 2019, totalling 1.53m hours. The discharges caused widespread fish kills, habitat destruction, and endangered human health with deadly diseases such as leptospirosis.

The Environment Agency currently permits pollution discharges under special circumstances, typically during wet weather, to keep homes from being flooded with sewage back flow. These increasingly common events are compounded by years of underinvestment by the water companies (“sweating the assets,” as it’s known in industry circles), rendering existing infrastructure, such as holding tanks, unable to cope with surges in sewage and waste water.

But here’s the thing: since privatisation 30 years ago, these same companies have managed to net a profit of £58 billion from tax payer’s money. The new CEO of Thames Water alone will make £12m over three years, including a £3m “golden hello” in compensation for loss of bonuses at her former employer.

Fed up with decades of regulatory failure and lack of industry transparency, Oxfordshire resident Ash Smith formed a local pressure group, Windrush Against Sewage Pollution (WASP), to hold Thames Water to account for thousands of illegal discharges into the River Windrush and Thames. We met Ash, who had no former experience in the water industry, and fellow activist Alex Heffernan in August 2020 while pedalling our boat Moksha down the River Thames – part of our #GB360 expedition around Wales.

Ash and Alex exemplify our belief that transition to a sustainable future starts with ordinary people taking local action and driving change from the bottom up.

One Person. One Action.

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Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill 2019-21

Executive payouts

Guardian article with interactive map of sewage dumps

Interactive map

Exclusive: water firms discharged raw sewage into England’s rivers 200,000 times in 2019