UK waters too polluted to swim

Almost all UK waters are polluted. In 2022, a House of Commons Committee report on the state of UK rivers concluded that no rivers in England were free of chemical pollution. Only 14% of UK rivers had ‘good’ ecological status.

Both agricultural runoff and the release of raw sewage are major causes of river pollution in the UK. In 2021, raw sewage was discharged into English waterways for over 2.5 million hours.

The discharge of sewage in the UK has occurred for a number of different reasons

Lack of investment in aging infrastructure means that the capacity of many sewer pipes is regularly exceeded. Therefore, to prevent sewage from accumulating and flooding public spaces and people’s homes, water companies usually discharge sewage elsewhere through the combined sewage overflow network.

The situation has not been helped by the interruption in the supply of wastewater treatment chemicals following Brexit and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Environment Agency responded to this shortage by introducing temporary exemptions in 2021, allowing water companies to temporarily release fully untreated effluent into the environment.

Untreated sewage from the UK can affect human health and is a threat to wildlife. In addition to containing harmful bacteria and viruses, sewage discharge floods rivers with nutrients that help algae thrive. These flowers block light from reaching deeper layers of water, thus preventing some plants from photosynthesizing. They can even reduce the oxygen content of the water, which worsens habitat quality.

UK waters are polluted, what the rest of Europe thinks

In Europe, the UK’s polluted waterways are largely an anomaly. Many other countries have reported significant improvements in bathing water quality in recent decades. By the way, it is already possible to bathe in some capitals, such as Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen and Vienna.

Between 1991 and 2019, the percentage of bathing waters in Europe with “excellent” water quality increased from 53% to 85%. In several countries, including Austria, Greece and Malta, over 95% of bathing areas are already classified as excellent.

So what lessons can the UK learn from European countries that have improved their performance?

1. Croatia

In 2009, only 44% of Croatians had access to wastewater collection systems and less than 25% to any form of wastewater treatment. The practice of discharging raw sewage into the Adriatic Sea has reduced the quality of Croatian coastal waters.

But between 2009 and 2015, an $87.5 million World Bank loan financed a project to improve sanitation. This included the construction of 14 new wastewater treatment plants and the installation of 162 km of sewerage networks.

By 2016, the percentage of the Croatian population with access to sewage services had risen to 72%. And the quality of Croatia’s coastal waters continues to improve. In 2021, 95.7% of its spas had excellent quality water.

2. Germany

The Ruhr River in western Germany runs through the main industrial region of the Ruhr. In 1971, bathing in the river was banned due to heavy pollution, both from sewage and chemical effluents from the local steel and mining industries.

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Between 2010 and 2015, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funded a research project called “Safe Ruhr”, whose aim was to return bathing places to the river.

The project combined extensive wastewater treatment with water quality monitoring. Also the modeling of routes by which bacteria and viruses enter the river and the development of an early warning system for short-term water contamination.

The project managed to reopen the popular spa on Lake Baldeney, south of the city of Essen, in 2017.

3. Albanian

In 2015, 40% of Albanian bathing water was classified as bad. This was largely a consequence of the underdevelopment of the country’s water supply and sewage network.

But in recent years, the quality of bathing water in the coastal areas of Albania has significantly improved. More than two thirds of the country’s bathing areas are now of excellent quality, including some of the biggest tourist destinations.

With the help of World Bank funds, local sewer networks were improved. Five new wastewater treatment plants have been installed along the coast of Durrës, with the capacity to serve half a million inhabitants.

This investment rapidly improved the quality of bathing water. In 2019, only 5.9% of Albanian bathing places were in poor condition.

4. Italy

The water quality in Lake Varese, a small lake in the north, had deteriorated for a long time since the 1960s. This was the result of extensive algal blooms, likely caused by nutrient enrichment from industrial effluents.

However, since the 1990s, a research program supported by the European Commission and Italy’s Ministry of the Environment has restored the lake’s water quality. In 2000 and 2001, nutrients were extracted directly from the lake using methods including nutrient inactivation and dredging. Two of the lake’s three spas are now of excellent quality.

A big political issue

Water quality is now a major policy issue in the UK. Labor Party leader Keir Starmer recently accused the government of “turning Britain’s waterways into an open sewer”.

Scrutiny like this has led the UK government to confirm its plans to increase the cap on fines for water companies that pollute the environment. Already last year, new requirements were imposed on these companies to invest £56 billion in water infrastructure by 2050 in order to reduce wastewater discharges.

But it remains to be seen whether this increasing pressure will result in the UK’s rivers, lakes and coastlines becoming safer for swimming. Looking to Europe for inspiration, it should invest heavily in sewage and sewage infrastructure and water control so that many more of us can swim in our natural surroundings.

This article was written by Tanja Radu, Senior Lecturer in Hydraulic Engineering at Loughborough University. Republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license


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