Analysis of sewage dumping statistics released by Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water for 2022 shows some Welsh rivers to be the most sewage-filled in the entire country. The figures have brought an angry response from the Welsh Liberal Democrats in particular, who accuse both Labour and the Conservatives of not acting to stop this rampant pollution.
The data, analysed by Top of the Poops, shows that sewage was dumped in Welsh rivers 83,000 times in 2022, with the dumping lasting almost 600,000 hours. This only tabulates sewage dumping by Welsh Water, and does not include data from the other water company in Wales. Hafren Dyfrdwy, owned by Severn Trent, operates in Mid and North East Wales.
Welsh Water accounts for more than 25% of all hours of discharges into waterways across England and Wales. Among the worst polluted are the River Garw, River Rhymney, River Taff, River Tawe, River Teifi, and River Usk. Along the River Taff alone, 29 sites were found to have been polluted by Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water via 1,120 sewage dumps of 9,564 hours in duration in 2022. This adds up to 1.11 years of dumping, an average of 3.07 times a day.
On paper, water companies are permitted to release untreated waste water only in rare circumstances. These include blockages, equipment failures, and heavy rainfall, so that damage prevention measures must be avoided or systems become overwhelmed. In practice, however, whatever the circumstances causing sewage dumping, they are far from rare, or irrelevant. 77,000 of the 83,000 Dŵr Cymru sewage dumps were described as “significant”.
There are sewage overflows into rivers across Wales and England, in all but a few constituencies. The exceptions are a result of having no Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs) in their areas. CSOs combine rainwater toilet sewage, then discharge it into rivers. This results in polluted and even dying rivers and the living beings residing in them. It creates such visible physical pollution as floating ‘sanitary’ products, which can also pollute riverbanks and overhanging flora.
Top of the Poops is run by volunteers, and analyses and maps the sewage data released by water regulators each March. It displays a comprehensive breakdown of that data, which you can search by such criteria such as your area, constituency, and local river. The website says it “is intended to provide an accurate representation of the Environment Agency data”. It also notes that the figures, “supplied by the water companies themselves, understate the problem, as the data is poorly collected by the Water Companies, with monitoring defective or in many cases completely absent. Many recordings of data don’t seem to be associated with a valid permit, so it is impossible to know where they are.”
Lack of transparency, ample apathy
The Surfers Against Sewage website corroborates that view, saying on its website: “The data for this year’s bathing season only tracks discharges at sewage overflows which impact designated bathing water. We know there are hundreds of popular swimming sites across the UK which don’t have official designation and are therefore left in the dark about the impact of sewage pollution. The water companies have all the data. The regulators have the authority to ask for it. And yet time and time again, we’re being restricted to a carefully selected set of information which fails to expose the true devastation caused by sewage pollution. What are they hiding? Is this a transparent system?”
The Conservatives have been criticised in Westminster for not legislating to reduce sewage dumping. Indeed, they effectively voted for it to continue. The Welsh Labour Government has also been accused of not tackling the problem. The Welsh Liberal Democrats have stated that sewage dumping poses “a serious risk to local wildlife and human health, as well as potentially damaging the Welsh tourism industry,” and called on the Conservatives to ban bonuses for water company executives. They want that money to be reinvested in improving infrastructure. Welsh Water bosses received over £1mn in bonuses over the past three years, almost £400,000 of that in 2022 alone.
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader and Senedd Member for Mid and West Wales Jane Dodds said: “It is tragic that Wales has some of the most sewage-filled rivers in the UK, many of them in my own region of Mid and West Wales. Being from Hay-on-Wye I find it desperately sad the state our rivers now find themselves in, we have watched first-hand the Wye decline seriously in health. The Conservatives have failed at every step to take this issue seriously. Now they expect the taxpayers to pay to clean up their mess while water company executives have spent years siphoning off money to pay themselves large bonuses. The Conservatives have the power to ban these bonuses but refuse to do so.”
Dodds added: “Meanwhile Welsh Labour is failing to take responsibility for sectors of the environment that are devolved to the Welsh Government. Likewise, Natural Resources Wales continues to be underfunded. We need to see a much greater investment in improved infrastructure from the Welsh Government, yet sewage dumping doesn’t even seem to be on their radar, instead they seem intent on blaming farmers for our rivers’s poor health.”
Three of the top five and six of the top ten “top of the poops” sewage dumping constituencies for 2022 are in Wales:
💩 Carmarthen East and Dinefwr was polluted by sewage 7,103 times, lasting 60,430 hours.
💩 Dwyfor Meirionnydd was polluted by sewage 6,039 times, lasting 49,174 hours.
💩 Preseli Pembrokeshire was polluted by sewage 5,098 times, lasting 47,283 hours.
💩 Ogmore was polluted by sewage 3,375 times, lasting 34,818 hours.
💩 Ceredigion was polluted by sewage 3,826 times, lasting 33,267 hours.
💩 Brecon and Radnorshire was polluted by sewage 3,925 times, lasting 30,429 hours.
Information on beaches and designated coastal bathing locations has not yet been made available by Dwr Cmyru/Welsh Water. Surfers Against Sewage conducted its analysis of the 2022 bathing season in partnership with Top of the Poops, but as yet that report only has information for England.
Just last week, MPs in Westminster were told that five of the nine Welsh rivers designated as Special Areas of Conservation were failing on phosphorus levels and excessive nutrients, and that only 40% of Welsh rivers met criteria for being considered to have good ecological status. At the same time, Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water customers were told they face “significant bill increases” to pay for preventative measures to stop sewage dumping in Welsh rivers and seas. Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water said it was making the protection of beaches and tackling storm overflows a priority, planning to spend almost £1bn over the next five years.
Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water customers already pay the second highest average bill in Wales and England, at £499. Now they are told they must pay even more for the company to do better in not sullying Welsh waters. Meanwhile, people who use Welsh waters for recreation report suffering physical ailments as a result, and businesses in that sector have been affected financially. There is no apparent compensation for such losses and suffering.
For all we know, the pollution in what should be our beautiful waters is even worse than reported. Without more transparency in data from water companies, our awareness remains as murky as our rivers, streams, and seas.
If you’ve been affected by the polluting of the waters of Wales, get in touch with Rachel: [email protected]