Time to get our shit together

18 August 2022

Waterside communities are challenging contexts for sanitation programming. Sandy soils and high water tables make it difficult to dig stable pit latrines without expensive (and often unaffordable) reinforcements. Persuading people to use toilets or to empty them safely can also be hard when people often see seas and rivers as cleansing bodies that wash away anything dirty, including open defecation or the contents of pits that have filled up. All this contributes to limiting sanitation progress in numerous communities in countries such as Kenya, Madagascar and Kiribati.

But news from the UK this week is a stark reminder that this is a problem in high income countries too. With heavy rain overloading the country’s drains, water and sewerage companies have been discharging untreated sewage into the sea to relieve pressure on drainage infrastructure, and to avoid water and sewage rising into the open from drains. Pollution warnings have been put in place for almost 50 beaches in England and Wales as a result of the discharges. Many are in popular swimming spots (the UK has experienced a boom in outdoor swimming in recent years, which is seeing more and more people flocking to rivers and seas for a dip) and some are reportedly even in marine protected areas.

Even more shocking is that discharges like this are not unusual, and are actually planned for, in the UK’s rivers and seas. Data from Water and Sewerage Companies shared with the Environment Agency shows that in 2021 there were over 14,000 storm overflow points specifically designed to release contaminated water, including sewage, into the environment. 87% of these overflowed at least once, releasing dirty water into the open, with potentially negative consequences for both people and the environment.

Why is sewage being dumped?

So why is this happening? In short, because our infrastructure isn’t being maintained and upgraded to keep up with the needs of the time. Discharging untreated wastewater in the UK is actually (unbelievably) still legal in exceptional circumstances. However, the fact that there were over 372,000 spill events from overflows in 2021 – an average of over 1,000 every day – suggests that discharges are happening in circumstances that are far from exceptional.

Population growth is playing a part, with Surfers Against Sewage reporting that “projected population figures suggest a 44% increase in sewage load in England and Wales since 1961 to 2039, equivalent to an extra 3 billion litres per day”.

Many of our stormwater, wastewater and sewage networks are combined, which means stormwater becomes contaminated when it goes down the drain, where it mixes with sewage. Climate change is making this a bigger issue, with the UK receiving more rain now than in previous decades putting additional pressure on aging infrastructure. It may be hard to believe, given how dry this summer has been, but the State of the UK’s Climate Report 2021 found that “for the most recent decade (2012–2021) UK summers have been on average 6% wetter than 1991–2020 and 15% wetter than 1961–1990. UK winters have been 10%/26% wetter”. The result is an increasing quantity of sewage and rainwater in a network simply not designed to take it.

What comes next?

Focus on this problem has grown in recent years as data has improved and public awareness has increased. This has all helped pressure the government into acting. Provisions were added to the Environment Act 2021 before it was finally passed at the end of last year, placing a duty on the private water companies responsible for the sewage discharges to reduce them over the coming years.

Frustratingly, these requirements fell short of more stringent requirements proposed, which were outvoted by the government on the basis of cost (much to the anger of constituents). It remains to be seen whether what has passed is enough to make the difference needed but what is clear is that significant investment will need to come from somewhere at some point if we are to really tackle this problem.

All this highlights the importance of ongoing monitoring, management, maintenance and upgrading of infrastructure, wherever in the world it is. Building something new, like a toilet, sewage network or treatment plant, is so often seen as the solution, but in reality it’s just the start. Needs change over time and sanitation solutions must reflect that. It also highlights the crucial importance of looking ahead when planning – at projected population, climate and other changes – to make sure investments made now continue to deliver in the future. If we don’t, investments will not only be wasted, they may ultimately end up causing harm.