the current state

of water quality

in the UK stinks

2022 figures from UK environmental regulators revealed untreated sewage was discharged into UK rivers and coastlines at the very least 399,864 times, that’s 1,091 times a day. And as this report will show, that’s most likely a huge underestimation of the scale of the UK sewage scandal.

Over the last year, 1,924 sickness reports were reported to Surfers Against Sewage, causing an estimated five years worth of sick days due to sewage pollution – and this is just those reported to SAS.

our Rivers are Dying

Only 14% of English rivers are in good ecological condition1, and our river citizen science data shows 60% of the popular swimming sites we monitored didn’t meet minimum safety requirements for water users.

This year alone, the SSRS has reported over 18,000 real-time sewage alerts and pollution risk forecasts for the UK.

rivers, lakes and the ocean are in crisis

The sheer amount of sewage, agricultural run-off and other pollutants that are pumped into UK beaches and rivers is astonishing. But not more astonishing than the truth about just how much water companies and other polluters have been hiding from public sight.

In Scotland a miniscule 4% of sewage overflows have reporting requirements and in Northern Ireland there is virtually no monitoring at all. Meaning water users and water lovers have little to no information about the threat sewage pollution plays to their health, and to the health of the natural environment.

Meanwhile in England, years of self-regulation has meant that the inner workings and finances of the private water companies are as broken and complicated as ever.

Figure 1
Total number of reported sewage discharges per nation from the annual returns for 2022.

Figure 2
Sewage pollution alerts and pollution risk forecasts from the SSRS during the 2022-23 bathing season.

Between October 2022 & September 2023, the SSRS reported 675 Pollution Risk Forecasts and 2,046 Sewage Pollution Alerts.

But things are changing…

It’s not just the surfers, or the swimmers, or even the occasional dippers who are getting clued up to the persistent exploitation of our blue spaces by money-grabbing corporations and blinkered people in power.

As more layers of the sewage scandal begin to peel back, communities and ocean activists everywhere have come together to call out those responsible.

Thousands have joined us in protest, and over 45,000 emails to local representatives and water company CEOs have been sent this year.

We’ve seen the public standing up against sewage pollution and campaigning for the ocean throughout the United Kingdom.

And we’re standing with them.

Water quality Timeline

A look back at key dates, campaigns and policy amendments during the 2022-23 bathing season across the UK.

Why are we here?

The dire state of our watery places is a result of systemic failure at every level to prioritise the health of the environment and the people who use it. Instead water has been exploited by short-term decision making.

As our water quality report revealed last year, water companies have been for decades putting profit over pollution, siphoning out huge dividends and executive bonuses whilst their infrastructure is systemically and routinely overwhelmed even on the driest days of the year2.

Governments have also seemingly turned a blind eye, with the independent Office of Environment Protection this year finding that the UK government and regulators have been failing to comply with their legal obligations to deal with sewage discharges3.

Instead of enforcing the law which allows the use of storm overflows in only exceptional circumstances, they have simply allowed water companies to use these overflows as a matter of course.

Environmental regulators have also suffered severe budget cuts up and down the country meaning that even reported pollution events go un-investigated and unpunished4.

In this year’s report we reveal the shocking lack of transparency from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and show the true scale of sewage discharges across Wales.

We highlight the devastating cost sewage pollution is having on individuals and business around the UK, and champion the work of the communities and individuals who have been forced by a failing system to take responsibility for improving their own favourite natural places.

The End Sewage

Pollution Manifesto

With a UK general election expected next year, and with sewage pollution dominating headlines, 2024 provides an unprecedented opportunity for people power to turn the tide on sewage pollution at a local and national level.

This report will provide you with the knowledge, stats and stories you can use to get the actions you need from your next local politicians or water company to ensure they clean up the sewage pollution wherever you live.

From now, right up until the election, politicians’ number one priority will be trying to secure your vote.

Collectively this gives us a huge amount of power to set the agenda and demand that your local candidates must commit to End Sewage Pollution if they want your vote. Remember, you don’t have to be a water quality expert to express your right to safe, clean water.

We at SAS HQ, working in collaboration with other environmental charities, community groups and sports governing bodies, have created the End Sewage Pollution Manifesto. Created by water lovers united by an ambition to deliver thriving water environments, the manifesto sets out the progressive policies that parties should adopt to deliver healthy and safe rivers and seas.

Our five key policy asks are for governments to:

Enforce the law

We have the regulations and laws we need to End Sewage Pollution. Now we must enforce them.

Prioritise high risk pollution events

Take immediate targeted action to tackle the highest risk pollution events.

Reveal the truth

Deliver UK wide transparency about sewage pollution.

Stop pollution for profit

Water companies’ first responsibility must be to the environment, not their shareholders and executives.

empower a nature led approach

Harness the power of nature to end sewage pollution.

Explore all of the

Nation focus reports

Wild swimmers and water users in England
Nation focus: England
Activists in Lough Neagh, Northern Ireland holding up a sign that says "Extinction means forever"
Nation focus: Northern Ireland
SAS team members in Scotland wearing gas masks holding up a sign that says "tell the truth"
Nation focus: Scotland
Nation focus: Wales