England’s rivers are contaminated by a “chemical cocktail” of sewage, agriculture and road pollution, according to a report from MPs.
The Environmental Audit Committee wants to see tougher monitoring and enforcement.
Why do we need to protect our water?
High quality water is key both to our survival and that of the environment.
Each person in the UK uses around 140 litres of water a day for washing, drinking and cooking.
The water we use in our homes is pre-treated to ensure its safety, but increased pollution means more intensive treatment is required, which raises household bills.
Higher levels of contamination also threaten open water sources crucial for the survival of wildlife, the natural environment and the food system.
According to the Wildlife Trusts, rising pollution levels place 10% of freshwater and wetland species at risk of extinction. In Wales and England, 38% of fish health checks are failed due to disease caused by pollution.
These species are vital to:
Access to clean water sources can also provide an opportunity for outdoor exercise.
Where does the pollution come from?
The main reasons for poor water quality are:
But Professor Steve Ormerod, ecologist at Cardiff University, also warns of other threats:
“We need to understand the risks which come with emerging pollutants – pharmaceuticals, microplastics. We don’t know, at this stage how big a problem they’re going to be in the future.”
Previous campaigns on acid rain and sewage have been successful in improving water quality, but improvements have stalled since 2016.
“The fact remains that many water companies, farmers and others are still not doing enough to protect [our waters],” the Environment Agency told the BBC.
Where areas are most affected?
Levels of water pollution vary across the UK.
Scotland has the largest number of high quality rivers across all four nations – with up to 66% in a good condition. In Wales, the figure is 40%, in Northern Ireland it’s 33% and in England it’s just 14%.
Pollution by water companies is particularly high in the south and southwest of England.
Access to good quality water sources also varies across income groups.
Analysis by the Environment Agency suggested that “people in deprived and heavily populated urban areas were more likely to live within 600m of a river with poor chemical or biological quality”.
This could be because these communities are more likely to live in areas near heavy industry and sewage treatment works.
Campaigning groups including Surfers against Sewage now provide real time data on water quality to help people assess the quality of water sources near them.
What’s being done to tackle the problem?
In 2018, the government published its 25-year Environment Plan, supported by a new Environment Bill for England which was designed to strengthen the regulation around water protection.
However the bill was only approved in November 2021, after a lengthy battle over the amount of sewage which can be released into rivers. Environmental campaigners and peers in the House of Lords had argued the bill was too lenient on water companies.
The UK’s national environment agencies are meant to monitor the quality of water to ensure industry compliance against the existing regulations.
However, chairman Philip Dunne said that the Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry had uncovered “multiple failures in the monitoring, governance and enforcement on water quality,” carried out by England’s Environment Agency.
Since 1993, the number of water quality samples taken annually by the Environment Agency and Natural Resources Wales has dropped by 57%, which the committee says is a result of budget cuts.
Stuart Roberts, deputy president of the National Farming Union, believes improved cooperation is key: “I don’t think you solve water quality by just establishing a set of rules. What you need to do is bring all the parties together – farmers, water companies [and the] Environment Agency.”
He cites the example of Poole Harbour Nutrient Management Scheme. Farmers are paid by Wessex Water to minimise fertiliser run-off, reducing contamination and therefore water treatment costs.
England and Wales’ water companies have also promised to invest £4bn by 2025 to reduce sewage leaks.
However, last year BBC Panorama revealed that they continued to allow undiluted sewage into waterways. This prompted calls by MPs for a move away from a system where water companies self-report breaches.