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Water pollution in a river


Speak Up For Our Rivers


“For the ocean to thrive, we must look to the source that feeds it – our rivers.”

Microplastics, car tyre particles, pesticides and wet wipes are just a few of the toxic ingredients contributing to our ‘chemical cocktail’ rivers, MPs have said. Immense amounts of pollution from sewage discharges, agricultural run-off and chemicals are destroying our delicate river ecosystems, threatening ocean recovery, and jeopardising the health of over 4.3 million people who swim in the UK’s freshwater fortnightly. 

The warnings are stark – only 14% of UK rivers currently meet ‘good ecological status’, not a single river in England has received a clean bill of health for chemical contamination, and rising pollution levels place 10% of freshwater and wetland species at risk of extinction, according to The Wildlife Trusts. 

However, it’s difficult to get a clear understanding of our river’s health due to outdated, underfunded, and inadequate monitoring. Budget cuts to the Environment Agency have hampered the ability to monitor water quality in rivers, nor detect permit breaches and pollution incidents from the water and agricultural industry. The Environmental Audit Committee heard that, until the passing of the Environment Act in 2021, there had been a lack of political will to improve water quality, with successive governments, water companies and regulators seemingly turning a blind eye to antiquated practices of dumping sewage and other pollutants in rivers.

Chairman of the Committee, Rt Hon Philip Dunne MP, said: “Rivers are the arteries of nature and must be protected. Our inquiry has uncovered multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality. For too long, the Government, regulators and the water industry have allowed a Victorian sewerage system to buckle under increasing pressure.”

There are many causes of water pollution in the UK but some of the key contributors include:

  • Excessive use of fertilisers and pesticides in agriculture – as well as intensive livestock and poultry farming.
  • Road run-off which is predominantly made up of the tiny particulates worn away from brakes and tyres.
  • Household waste including fats, oils and harsh cleaning products.
  • Single use plastic hygiene products which can clog drains, sewage works and create ‘wet wipe reefs’ in rivers. The chemicals they are often coated in harm aquatic life too.
  • Untreated sewage released by water companies.

    The increasing pollution in UK waters is threatening our public health, our freshwater eco-systems, and our oceans. The increasing number of people who swim regularly outdoors unknowingly expose themselves to bacteria found in sewage and animal slurry which can cause sickness. Thousands of species rely on safe freshwater habitats like kingfishers, otters, salmon, dippers, water voles and herons. The impact on wildlife is already concerning with 38% of fish health checks in Wales and England failing due to disease caused by pollution. And our oceans, with rivers acting as a ‘plastic conveyor belt’ – a connection often overlooked in marine conservation efforts.

    Leading the battle against sewage pollution in UK waters for the past 30 years is the environmental charity Surfers Against Sewage who have recently called for over 200 river bathing waters to be designated by 2030 to tackle sewage pollution. These are blue spaces where water quality is officially monitored for harmful bacteria and viruses, with legal obligations placed on industry to stop sewage and agricultural pollution. At present, there is just one official bathing water located on a UK river. This must change 

For our oceans to thrive, we must look to the source that feeds it – our rivers, the arteries of our blue planet. We firmly stand beside Surfers Against Sewage in their mission, and hope that you consider joining too.