Horrifying Map Shows You Which Rivers In England And Wales Are Filled With Sewage

It's just the latest development in the ongoing debate about waste in UK waterways ahead of COP26.
People are worried about sewage levels in the UK
People are worried about sewage levels in the UK
Robert Brook via Getty Images

The Rivers Trust has created an interactive map pointing out which rivers in England and Wales had the greatest sewage issues.

The map, shared on Twitter by Good Law Project, comes with a warning: “Avoid entering the water immediately downstream of these discharges and avoid the overflows (brown circles), especially after it has been raining.”

According to the graphic, the worst area was around Leeds in 2020 where there were 1,008 storm overflows into rivers recorded.

Cardiff, Southampton, Newcastle upon Tyne and Liverpool also have high pollution rates in their waterways.

Just how concerned should we be?

The Environment Agency claims that raw sewage was dumped into UK waters more than 400,000 times in 2020 across more than 3.1 million hours.

Surfers Against Sewage, a campaign group pushing for cleaner waters, said work to tackle sewage pollution needs to start immediately for health and safety reasons.

It’s also a major environmental issue as rivers across the UK become contaminated with untreated waste.

It could undermine Britain’s authority ahead of the pivotal UN climate summit COP26 next week.

Why is this especially relevant now?

‘Sewage’ started trending on Twitter along with hashtags like #BrexitReality’ and ‘#RawSewageTories’ on Monday.

It followed concerns about a new Environment Bill which ministers are reportedly trying to push through Parliament before the UK hosts the UN’s climate summit in Glasgow from October 31 to November 12.

The Environment Bill is an important piece of legislation that will govern how the UK manages the pollution in its rivers, water and air following Brexit.

The House of Lords suggested amending the Environment Bill last week to include a legal duty on water companies in England and Wales.

Under the amendment, firms would have to improve sewage systems which are likely to be damaged by storm overflows, and “demonstrate progressive reductions in the harm caused by discharge of untreated sewage”.

MPs then voted against the amendment, by 268 votes to 204 – this means water companies can continue to pump untreated sewage into waterways.

Tory MPs were acting on the advice of environment secretary George Eustice.

Why did some MPs not support the sewage amendment?

Conservative MP Robert Courts alleged many Tories voted against it because the proposal had no plan to explain how it could actually be delivered and there had been no impact assessment.

He claimed: “In eliminating storm overflows, we are talking about transforming a system which has operated since the Victorian Era, the preliminary cost of which is estimated to be anywhere between £150bn and £650bn.”

He added that the government believes this “would have been irresponsible to have inserted this section into the bill” as it would have been the same as “signing a blank cheque”.

Addressing concerns about how effective the bill will be, a government spokesperson said: “Our landmark environment bill will transform how we protect our natural environment, make better use of our resources and clean up our air and water.

“We have listened very carefully and we’re now bringing forward changes which improve the bill and demonstrate our global leadership ahead of COP26.”

What else is in the Environment Bill?

Water companies and the Environment Agency will have to publish data on storm overflow operations every year, and publish near real-time information about any overflows – including the location and when it stops.

Water companies will have to monitor water quality upstream and downstream of a storm overflow. They’ll have to produce clear drainage and sewerage management plans too, to explain how it will cope with storm overflows.

The government did accept an amendment which extends powers to set charges for single-use items including all materials – not just plastic.

Few people support the MPs’ decision

High-profile figures including former sportsman Gary Lineker pointed out that he was “not an enormous fan of pumping raw sewage into our seas and rivers”.

Financial Times’ Jim Pickard also tweeted: “There’s a lingering disquiet about Tory MPs voting last week against an amendment to stop private water companies dumping raw sewage into rivers and coastlines…not sure they’ve gauged the public mood on this.”


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