#EndSewagePollution campaign launches nationwide protests

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The UK-wide day of action shines a spotlight on the damaging actions of water companies and government inaction on the problem of sewage pollution.

Protests are taking place across the country today to end the sewage pollution that is leaving Britain’s rivers and seas in critical condition.

The National Day of Action on Water Quality is organized by Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a grassroots movement dedicated to protecting oceans, beaches and wildlife, which has partnered with other activists against sewage pollution.

Put the words into action

Environmental activists are urging government and industry to walk the talk and deliver on their promises to tackle sewage pollution.

A total of 11 protests are taking place across the UK, each targeting a water company, including Scottish Water, Northern Ireland Water and Welsh Water.

Wastewater is being dumped into blue spaces across the country at alarming rates. The decision by water companies and the government to view rivers as places capable of absorbing pollution has turned waterways into what has been described as anything but an “open sewer”.

Studies show that in 2020 alone, UK rivers suffered the brunt of more than 3 million hours of sewage discharge.

SAS attributes the deepening crisis to weakened legislation and an unfunded regulator, which has allowed the water industry to operate with impunity.

“An ineffective system and an inexcusable situation, a bit like handing over to bank robbers their own arrest,” wrote SAS chief executive Hugo Tagholm in the foreword to the organization’s report. Water Quality Report 2021.

The water industry privatized in 1989

The UK water and sewerage industry was privatized in 1989. Since the Water Act 1989, which privatized water and sold it to private water and sanitation companies sanitation, the industry has, according to SAS, “failed to plan and invest enough in protecting the blue environment and those who use it.

The extent of water pollution generated by water companies has made headlines this week.

A report watch how Thames Water dumped raw sewage into rivers thousands of times in 2021. Campaigners have revealed that last year Thames Water – the UK’s largest water and wastewater company – has dumped untreated effluent for more than 68,000 hours into river systems around Oxford. The private utility company discharged raw sewage into the River Thames and its tributaries 5,028 times in 2021, according to research by the Oxford Rivers Improvement Campaign (ORIC).

Campaigners say failure to invest in the capacity of sewage treatment plants has led to more raw sewage in rivers.

Mark Hull, a former water industry consultant and founding member of ORIC, called the inaction to address the problem “outrageous”.

“Thames Water and the Government Environment Agency failed to address this issue for many years. Their continued underperformance is unimaginable, especially as the sector’s financial regulator, Ofwat, has made it clear that it will not oppose the necessary investment,” Hull said.

Warnings have been issued that agriculture and the industrialization of food production are turning rivers into ‘open sewers’.

Last month the River Wye was described as an open sewer, as large amounts of manure continue to pollute the waters of the Wye. Its location at the center of intensive poultry production means that the high volume of bird manure that is spread on the land as fertilizer is washed into the rivers and tributaries when it rains, subsequently turning the river green.

‘It’s poop!’

A longtime campaigner for clean rivers is singer and fly-fishing enthusiast Feargal Sharkey. The former singer of the Undertones mentioned the biggest polluter in this country is agriculture and the industrialization of food production.

Refer to ‘It’s poop‘, a song by the Cambridge Save Honey Hill Community Choir, protesting the ‘unnecessary relocation’ of Cambridge sewage works to the preserved Honey Hill site in the Cambridge Greenbelt, which should therefore be protected from development by government policy, Sharkey tweeted:

“Dear @DefraGovUK, Here’s what the general public thinks of the government’s approach to the water industry and protecting our rivers.”

Unsurprisingly, only 14% of Britain’s rivers meet “good environmental status”, and the UK ranked bottom in Europe for bathing water quality in 2020 by the European environmental monitoring body.

Today’s #EndSewagePollution protests are calling on the government to fix this sewage scandal, end sewage pollution in UK bathing waters by 2030, implement targets louder and bolder to end untreated sewage discharges, to further expose regulators for ignoring the truth, and to take the message straight to the doorsteps of water company headquarters.

Gabrielle Pickard-Whitehead is editor of Left Foot Forward

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