‘Protecting all of our rivers and streams is essential to prevent Britain from becoming an open sewer’

Wera Hobhouse is the Liberal Democrats’ Climate Change and Transport Spokesperson and MP for Bath 

Between 2020 and 2021, there were more than 775,000 sewage spills in England and Wales. The Government has muddied the waters further by scrapping vital indicators of river and stream health, and by omitting water quality from their legally binding environmental targets.

Back in December, COP15 showed promise for a global commitment to cleaning up rivers. The target is to conserve at least 30% of land and inland water. During the summit, the Conservative Government scrapped the indicator on river health, the only measure for water companies and the public to know whether their water is clean. This comes at a time when we know that not a single river in the UK is free from pollution.

Twice now, I have asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how my constituents can be sure their water is clean. Both times I received a non-answer.

This comes against the backdrop of sewage being pumped into our rivers and lakes for nearly 6 million hours last year. The Government refuses to get a grip of these spills and what results from their non-action is yet more misery for the public and our environment.

What the Government has opted for is to introduce a target for the reduction of pollution from two sources: agriculture and water, but the monitoring method is from modelling data, not from water quality monitoring.

Even if there is a reduction in pollution from these two sources, there could still be problems with our rivers and streams, as the Conservatives have scrapped the target to report against, and there is no overall ecological monitoring required. This is sure to achieve nothing other than to erode Government incentives to improve the health of our water.

Poor target setting does not end here. The ocean stores more carbon than any other ecosystem. This ‘Blue carbon’ is CO2 accumulated in marine ecosystems, but estimated losses of blue carbon are not included in the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions figures, and there are no targets to reverse such losses. Sewage and agricultural pollution account for around 80% of water pollution risking a devastating tipping point, where these systems can flip from carbon sinks to carbon sources.

Such blatant disregard for the environment is nothing less than unacceptable, where every single one of the 4,679 surface water bodies in England’s 10 River Basin Districts has failed chemical standards, according to Environment Agency data from May 2022.

These catastrophic figures have very real consequences for both people and the planet. Dirty water can cause deadly diseases. Dame Sally Davies, UK Special Envoy for Antimicrobial Resistance, has warned that “If no action is taken on antimicrobial resistance, then by 2050 an estimated 10 million antimicrobial resistant bacteria related deaths will occur every year.”

This figure is especially frightening in light of increased flooding as a result of climate change, meaning that untreated sewage can spill beyond the river banks. Raw sewage may also contain microplastics, pharmaceuticals, heavy metals, and waste that is flushed down toilets. This can drastically change water chemistry, resulting in ecological harm and environmental damage.

As required by the Environment Act, the Government published a storm overflows discharge sewage plan in August of last year. In the same month, the Environment Agency declared pollution alerts to beachgoers after flash-flood overflows.

The new plan asks that:

-By 2035, water companies will have to improve all storm overflows discharging into or near every designated bathing water; and improve 75% of overflows discharging into high priority nature sites

-By 2050, this will apply to all remaining storm overflows covered by our targets, regardless of location

This does not go far enough. The Liberal Democrats are calling to completely eliminate the harm caused to the environment and individual and public health by the discharge of untreated sewage into rivers – not just high-priority nature sites.

Protecting all of our rivers and streams is essential to prevent Britain from becoming an open sewer. It is a scandal that the Government is sitting on their hands and not giving the public full transparency with the safety of their water. This Dickensian situation should not be tolerated in 2023.

The Liberal Democrats will continue to fight for significantly increasing our protections for nature and biodiversity in this country, including our Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Without reversing nature loss, entire ecosystems can be damaged. Not only does this harm CO2 storage, but it risks the mass release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

It is a vicious circle of ecological destruction. The Conservative Government must step in and defend our future from harmful pollutants, diseases and catastrophic global warming.

My constituents and people across Britain deserve a Government that will defend nature and protect their health. Not the neglect that the Conservative Government has shown, allowing for its decline.

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