Faeces, wet wipes and hygiene products: Untreated sewage is increasingly polluting water bodies in England. As the British environmental authority Environment Agency announced, in 2023 the discharge of untreated wastewater into the sea and rivers was recorded more frequently in the largest part of the UK than ever before – more than 464,000 times.

According to this, untreated wastewater flowed into open waters for 3.6 million hours last year. This is more than double compared to the previous year, when there were around 1.75 million hours.

The so-called combined sewer overflow is actually considered an emergency measure. It becomes necessary when the sewer system is overwhelmed due to heavy rainfall and the wastewater threatens to be pushed back through the pipes into houses and streets. In the UK there is only one sewerage system for rainwater and wastewater.

Opposition politician calls for environmental emergency

The Environment Agency said the sharp increase was partly due to heavy rainfall last year. In addition, all overflow points are now equipped with a measuring device. The figures are therefore only comparable to those of previous years to a limited extent. However, this does not release water suppliers from their obligation to comply with the law, the agency warned.

In recent years, cases have repeatedly been uncovered in which untreated wastewater was released into the environment without there having been heavy rain beforehand. This is illegal and particularly bad because the wastewater is then not diluted by rainwater and can cause serious damage to animals and plants – for example because it promotes the growth of algae, which deprive the water of oxygen.

Water suppliers are criticized

The British government had already introduced tougher penalties for illegal dumping of dirty water, but at the same time admitted that it would take years until the infrastructure was adapted accordingly. British Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey called on Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s (Conservative) government on Wednesday to declare a national environmental emergency. “Only by treating the sewage scandal with the urgency it deserves can we preserve our rivers and beaches for future generations,” Davey told the PA news agency.

Environmental organizations accuse water utilities of failing to invest in infrastructure and instead paying out high dividends to their shareholders. Industry association Water UK recently presented a plan to improve the sewage system at a cost of 10 billion pounds (around 11.9 billion euros), but also announced significant increases in water bills for customers. Consumer advocates criticize the plans, which are currently being examined by the responsible supervisory authority.

Rowers must protect themselves from infections

The pollution has now even reached the renowned Oxbridge Boat Race between the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. As PA reported this week, environmentalists from the organization River Action had found a greatly increased concentration of the intestinal bacteria Escherichia coli in the section of the Thames used for the race. This was almost ten times higher than for bathing waters that are classified as poor by the environmental authority.

Environmentalists blame the combined sewer overflows at a nearby overflow point for the bacteria concentration. Together with the rowing association British Rowing, they have issued advice on how athletes can protect themselves from infections. These are to be distributed to the participants in the race between the two elite universities this Saturday, also known as the Gemini Boat Race. This includes, for example, protecting wounds with waterproof bandages and making sure not to swallow splashed water.