Sewage crisis: The truth about British rivers and how to clean them up

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Maureen McLean/Shutterstock (12908462g) Pollution on the Jubilee River adjacent to Slough Sewage Treatment Works managed by Thames Water. The Jubilee River is used regularly by open water swimmers and is a haven for migrating birds. During 2021, water companies discharged raw sewage into rivers in England 372,533 times. By 2040 the sewage discharges into rivers is targetted to be reduced by 40%, however, many environmentalists say this is too little, too late and that the directors of polluting water companies should be imprisoned as fines alone are not stopping regular sewage discharges into rivers Pollution, Jubilee River, Eton Wick, Windsor, Berkshire, UK - 23 Apr 2022

Sewage flowing through the Jubilee river in Windsor, UK, threatening wildlife

Maureen McLean/Shutterstock

TENS of metres under central London a tunnel has been dug that stretches 25 kilometres at a cost of £4.3 billion. Boring was completed in April 2022 and the passage should start operation in 2025. The 7.2-metre-wide Thames Tideway won’t carry people or vehicles though, but sewage.

This “super sewer” will collect the huge volumes of stormwater and waste that often overwhelm London’s ageing sewage system. Instead of being dumped into the Thames estuary, as happens now, the effluent will gush through the new tunnel to Europe’s largest sewage treatment works at Beckton, on the outskirts of the city.

The Thames Tideway is the most conspicuous example of the UK’s attempts to stop dumping sewage into rivers, amid growing outrage towards the privatised water companies responsible for the waste system. But this new infrastructure is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solving this crisis, which is linked to wider issues of how water is managed and even climate change. The good news is that technical solutions already exist, many of which are win-wins: helping to solve sewage overflows as well as problems such as flooding and drought.

While many forms of pollution foul Britain’s rivers, sewage has grabbed the limelight. News programmes have repeatedly shown footage of dirty slurry tumbling into pristine river waters. The main culprits are combined sewer overflows (CSOs), designed for when water from heavy rain is carried into the sewage system and must be discharged due to its high volume – taking waste with it. …

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