The British Queen Victoria (1819-1901) loved the sea. Her “Bathing Machine”, a rolling beach cabin that protected her from prying eyes, can still be seen today on the private beach of her country estate, Osborne House, on the Isle of Wight. But today, if you want to take a dip in the sea nearby, you could have an unexpected encounter with something that you had supposedly said goodbye to forever by flushing the toilet.

Cowes Beach, near Queen Vicky’s home, is the most polluted beach in the country, an analysis of official data by environmental campaigners Friends of the Earth has revealed. According to this, dirty water flowed into the sea there for almost 5,000 hours last year.

This is anything but an isolated case, as a look at the website of another organization shows: The Surfers against Sewage (Surfers against Sewage) provide a map that shows where untreated sewage has just been released into the sea. Small piles mark the places where a bath is strongly discouraged and there are often quite a few of them.

In England alone, raw sewage was discharged into the sea from the coast for more than 440,000 hours in 2023. A quarter of them are near beaches.

The problem, which people protested against in several places over the weekend, is not new. The country ranked last in the European Environment Agency’s 2020 bathing water quality report, the last to include Britain before Brexit. Only 17.2 percent of bathing waters were rated as excellent. In comparison: In Germany this applied to 89.9 percent of the waters and in Greece to 97.1 percent. But why is Great Britain of all places doing so badly?

The fact that untreated wastewater occasionally ends up in lakes, rivers and coastal waters also happens in Germany. The reason for this is that, particularly in large cities, wastewater and rainwater often flow into a single sewer system. To ensure that the wastewater is not pushed back into houses and streets during heavy rainfall and that sewage treatment plants are not overflowed, the sewer system is relieved by the so-called combined sewer overflow. A mix of untreated wastewater and rainwater then flows directly into nature. The problem: In Great Britain, this has almost become the norm. In some cases, it even happens when it hasn’t rained.

According to infrastructure expert and professor of economic policy Dieter Helm from the University of Oxford, the combined sewer system is not fundamentally the core of the problem. In fact, a comprehensive separate sewer system would not be financially viable – and would not be necessary, he said in an interview with the German Press Agency.

The problem is that in recent decades there has been little investment in the existing wastewater system despite higher demands and a growing population. According to Helm, the reason for this is a catastrophic failure on the part of the supervisory authorities: the water utilities that were privatized at the end of the 1980s were not prevented from diligently paying out dividends to their shareholders instead of investing – even with money that came from loans.

“It’s like taking your own goalkeeper off the pitch in football and then doing without a referee,” says Helm, who sees bankruptcy-like proceedings for the heavily indebted water supplier Thames Water as the only way out. But both major political parties in Great Britain have so far rejected this. Instead, the supervisory authorities are negotiating with water suppliers about investment programs, which, however, are expected to result in price increases of up to 44 percent for households. Many Brits find this shameless.

Just in time for the start of the bathing season in Great Britain in mid-May, the news hit the headlines that even the idyllic Lake Windermere in the Lake District had been contaminated with faeces. In the county of Devon, dozens of people fell ill with diarrhoea and nausea due to contaminated drinking water. Expert Helm believes that it will be at least ten years before Great Britain’s faeces crisis is resolved.