Hot Sewage Summer

How Britain’s sewage problem impacts marine life and international relations

22nd September 2022

Erin LynchErin Lynch

If you weren’t aware of the dismal state of British waters by now, the persistent news alerts about sewage runoffs and unsafe waters this summer most likely forced it to your awareness. It’s a topic we’ve covered before, as marine conservation is one of our core cause areas. What is remarkable about this summer is the increased frequency of ‘sewage events’ and alerts, and the tension this is causing with international neighbours.

From mid August through to early September, droughts were declared in areas across the UK. Arid land is less able to absorb water so when it did rain, larger quantities reached drainage channels, causing flooding and sewage overflows. Drought conditions have impacted all of Europe, but the UK is a noticeably poor performer by international metrics.

According to data from the European Environmental Agency (EEA) and UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the UK’s bathing waters are some of the worst in Europe. Only five countries — Albania, Estonia, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland, have worse water quality. An investigation from the New Statesman found that in 2019, when the country was still required to report to the EEA, the UK submitted data for 644 bathing sites, and only 66 per cent were found to be “excellent”. In 2021, with the UK no longer feeding data to European agencies, Defra only published information on 419 bathing sites.

The issue has even started to cause friction with neighbouring states, with three French MEPs accusing the UK of ‘abandoning international obligations’ to protect marine life and human health, after sewage threatened to risk French fishing waters. Faecal matter is obviously a huge concern, but so too are microplastics and medicines and other contaminants which can have a toxic effect on aquatic life. The delegation has asked the European Commission to seek “political and legal” measures to stop the pollution.

It is hoped that perhaps the nation’s new Prime Minister, Liz Truss might do something about the situation. However some are doubtful given the fact that over £235 million was axed from the Environment Agency’s budget during her tenure as environment secretary.

Given the issue’s increasing prominence in mainstream news channels, we hope that politicians might feel greater impetus to act on sewage, and new and innovative solutions will emerge. In late June, Professor Chris Whitty published a joint opinion piece with Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environmental Agency, highlighting the public-health impacts of sewage discharge, and some proposed solutions.

These included investment to boost resilience and capacity, preventative engineering, better sewer management, greater legal pressure on water companies and ultraviolet treatment to reduce human faecal infective organisms.

Elsewhere, the conservation charity WildFish called for a judicial review of the UK’s ‘inadequate’ and possibly ‘unlawful’ sewage strategy, which the charity argue would allow storm overflows to continue dumping raw sewage for the next 28 years.

Finding Optimism amid Chaos

Political willpower is vital to help prevent further climate chaos; so too is collective pressure on elected officials. But we also need creative solutions.

This year saw the publication of multiple important, pragmatic, and optimistic books which turn climate topics on their head, but take quite different approaches in doing so.

Ocean Rewilding

‘Rewilding the Sea: How to Save Our Oceans’ (published in June 2022 by Penguin Books), was written by Blue Marine Foundation co-founder and Executive Director, Charles Clover. The book chronicles the remarkable innovations taking place to help reverse damage to our oceans, and is a follow-on from Clover’s ‘The End of The Line’ which covered overfishing and was, in his own words ‘almost universally bleak’. Certainly, the damage facing our oceans is still extensive with 90% of fish stocks ‘overexploited’. Industrial fishing is the worst culprit, destroying coral reefs and seabed ecosystems in its wake. Clover calls this the ‘world’s largest solvable problem’.

The concept of ‘rewilding’ hit the mainstream over the past few years. It is a broad concept, but is defined by Rewilding Britain as ‘a big picture, holistic approach to helping nature recover and flourish’. While it usually refers to land-based programmes, Clover believes that rewilding can happen in our oceans if we let nature ‘repair itself’. But it’s not entirely passive. In order to get to that point, Clover argues we need ‘better fisheries management’, the creation of marine protected areas, and targeted protection for the parts of the ocean which best sequester carbon. The book includes countless examples of where ‘leaving the sea alone’ (i.e. not engaging in extractive activities) is shown to work, both in terms of improving the ecosystem, but also in terms of replenishing fish stock. There are also examples where the reintroduction of certain species, such as the oyster, can have a remarkable impact on regeneration and carbon sequestration.

Blue Marine Foundation champion many of these innovations, such as the Marine Protected Areas in Lyme Bay, Ascension Island, and the Solent. Other examples of innovations include the recovery of the Atlantic bluefin tuna, once almost extinct, now present across Northern European oceans. The book also covers international relations, discussing how international cooperation will be vital to help this global project.

Climate Migration

The other book we’re featuring this month is ‘Nomad Century’, How Climate Migration will Reshape our World (or, ‘How to Survive the Climate Upheaval’)’ by Gaia Vince, published in August 2022.

Vince’s previous book ‘Adventures in the Anthropocene’ won the Royal Society Science Book of the Year Prize for its depiction of ordinary people’s ingenuity in solving climate issues, for instance, how the Maldives has been using electrified reefs to boost fish populations, and how villagers in a drought-filled village used satellite technology to find water.

Nomad Century takes a slightly different tack. Vince argues that many of the most devastating impacts of climate change are now inevitable. We know that extreme climate change will push vast numbers of people from their homes, and large regions will become uninhabitable. Current estimates project that over the next 50 years, the earth will become close to uninhabitable for 3.5 billion people. The solution, Vince argues, is migration. Climate migration has already started, but rather seeing it as a ‘problem’, Vince recasts it as a solution. Vince argues that migration can help solve many domestic demographic and economic challenges, and that we’ll need to ‘move northward as a species’, inhabiting the fringes of Europe, Asia, and Canada.

It’s an interesting approach that would require us to overcome our ‘geopolitical mindsets’ in order to truly embrace what it means to be ‘citizens of Earth’. It’s a searingly realistic, yet wildly ambitious look at what it might take to survive.

Good Tythings

Updates from our six cause areas this month

Reimagining Carbon

Reimagining Carbon
  • There’s some positive news from the US. The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law on August 12. The Act aims to reduce carbon emissions by approximately 40 percent by 2030 and promote investment in domestic energy production and manufacturing. If this is achieved, it would be the most substantial climate commitment ever seen in the U.S. The Act also proposed over $20 billion for US Department of Agriculture conservation programs, and transformed the 45Q tax credit, possibly catalysing widespread Direct Air Capture (DAC) deployment, while creating high-quality jobs. Carbon 180 has played a vital role in spearheading innovative and impactful climate policy over the past few years. As one of Europe’s most important partners, it’s hoped this commitment will ‘set the stage for a strengthened transatlantic partnership on climate-forward innovation’, said Lee Beck, Senior Director (Europe) at Clean Air Task Force.
  • The Clean Air Task Force has joined with over 40 key stakeholders to launch the Nuclear Hydrogen Initiative, a global coalition intended to advance nuclear hydrogen as a critical climate solution. Hydrogen generated by nuclear energy is clean, energy ‘dense’, and carries a small land footprint. Nuclear technologies could help meet the global demand for zero-carbon fuel, projected by the International Energy Agency (IEA) to increase 500 times by 2050.

Marine Conservation

Marine Conservation
  • Blue Marine Foundation Launched an initiative into the overfishing of yellowfin tuna in the Indian ocean. They also launched an exciting new digital experience called ‘The Sea We Breathe’, a visually powerful call-to-action, narrated by Stephen Fry. It’s worth checking out.
  • Blue Marine is also encouraging the public to sign the petition #BringBackBritishCod.The West of Scotland cod population has already declined by 92% since 1981 and cod off the south coast of Ireland is down by 89% since 1968. Blue Marine Foundation, like others, hope to negotiate sustainable catch limits for all 5 UK cod stocks with the EU this year. BMF argue that the UK government is ignoring the science by allowing overfishing, and public support can help push this issue.
  • Sewage finally came to widespread public awareness this summer. We partly have Surfers Against Sewage to thank for ‘lifting the lid on #SewageScandal’. The organisation is calling for more transparency on the state of UK Waters. As water companies remove their pollution alert tools, some are worried that Defra has altered its water classification system to inflate the number of ‘passable water quality’ beaches. As such we rely on organisations like SAS to help bring transparency.
  • Fortunately, you can use the Safer Seas Service mobile application to track water quality in your local area. If you’ve been made sick by UK beaches and waterways, You can also submit your own health reports.

Forest Conservation

Forest Conservation
  • The Rainforest Trust was able this summer to establish a new protected area adjacent to Gorongosa National Park. A total of 32,375 acres have now been protected in the Trust’s efforts to connect the National Park to the greater Gorongosa-Marromeu Landscape in central Mozambique. This habitat is home to the greatest density of buffalo on the continent, Lions, Hippopotamus, Endangered African Wild Dogs, and Endangered African Savanna Elephants.
  • Multiple cases of wild Indian Elephants being killed by illegal electric fences spurred the World Land Trust into action a few years ago. With the support of the WLT, Wildlife Trust of India was able to install solar-powered electric fences in Jaigaon, a village close to the Bhutanese border. This intervention resulted in a 40-50% decrease in elephants entering into the village, and zero deaths.

Climate-Resilient Communities

Climate-Resilient Communities
  • Last year, Kenya recorded 179 elephant deaths due to the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa. That’s more deaths than those caused by poaching. Sand Dams Worldwide (formerly Excellent Development) is working with the Tsavo Trust and the Africa Sand Dam Foundation to construct 25 sand dams over the next 5 years which will help restore degraded land and provide year-round water for the wildlife in Tsavo National Park.
  • On the 13th October 2022, SolarAid is challenging everyone to go for one night without using electricity in their new fundraiser. Over 590 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity, and your participation can help raise awareness of the crucial work SolarAid is doing to help families avoid the dangers of kerosene lamps.

Food & Agriculture

Food & Agriculture
  • There’s a lot of misinformation surrounding food systems, which shields the actual complexity of the issue. The Sustainable Food Trust paired up with Farmers Weekly to bust 8 common misconceptions about British Farming.
  • The Good Food Institute, alongside FAIRR Initiative just released the first-ever ESG reporting framework for the alternative protein industry. The framework will encourage alternative protein companies to report on things like product affordability, water management, and sourcing in their supply chains. This will help make sure that companies working to develop alternative proteins ensure that their broader operating structure helps create long-term value for the economy, society, and the environment.

Education & Advocacy

Education & Advocacy
  • What does it mean to have an environmentally friendly job? Is that even a realistic ambition? As we confront a cost of living crisis, these questions are worth delving into. Action for Conservation were just featured on The Tree Council’s ‘Life On The Hedge’ podcast where they discussed paths into conservation, forestry, and horticulture careers.
  • Action for Conservation’s intergenerational nature restoration Penpoint Project recently received a write-up. Launched in the summer of 2019 on a 2,000 acre estate in the Brecon Beacons, Wales, the Penpont Project is the largest intergenerational nature restoration project of its kind anywhere in the world. It has brought young people, farmers, foresters, landowners and others together to restore nature and culture in this special place.
  • ClientEarth have joined a multi-group complaint in Australia against Glencore – one of the world’s largest coal companies. The complaint argues that Glencore’s net zero claims are misleading investors and the public about what its coal production plans mean for the climate. If the claim succeeds, ClimateEarth hope it would put other firms across the world on notice that they can’t make sustainability claims without backing them up.