Shocking drone footage reveals UK’s sewage shame

uk sewage drone

A drone video that shows raw sewage being dumped into a UK river for 49 hours straight has shocked Britain and tapped into a national debate about the environment ahead of the COP26 climate summit.

In 2020, there were 403,171 spills of sewage into England’s streams, rivers, and seas, lasting some 3 million hours in total. But last week, that didn’t stop UK lawmakers from voting against a bill that would have slapped water companies with new duties if they didn’t reduce discharging untreated sewage into the waterways.

Now, photographer Chris Pearsall’s drone is helping people to understand just how dirty politics can be, quite literally.

Pearsall says he “just couldn’t believe” what he was seeing, as his drone captured a treatment plant run by Southern Water releasing raw sewage from a 7-foot pipe into Langstone Harbour, which is a conservation area. Here’s Pearsall:

I’ve been in the job 50 years and I’ve never seen anything like this before. I put my drone out, and I couldn’t believe my eyes what was coming out of that pipe; you really needed an aerial view to get a true sense of what was going on.

Drone video shows raw sewage being pumped into UK river

The footage was picked up by BBC Breakfast earlier today and has since been viewed more than a million times on Twitter alone.

We’re also sharing a more detailed version of the drone video that Pearsall created in collaboration with a public campaign group, Hayling Sewage Watch.

Why is this happening?

Britain’s sewers system has typically struggled to cope with storms or heavy rains. When sewage works get overwhelmed, the government allows water treatment companies to release untreated or partially treated sewage into rivers and seas – essentially to stop the waste from backing up in streets and homes.

The problem is, with continued climate change, population growth, and loss of land that can absorb rain, the network of drains, rainwater, road, and land runoff now overflows routinely. This means that sewage dumping, which was supposed to be an exception, has become a routine practice.

Environmentalists point out that better infrastructure such as storage tanks could prevent this. But the cost to build this infrastructure is estimated to be between £150 billion and £650 billion.

Several members of prime minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party posted explainers on their websites after facing a public backlash:   

To eliminate storm overflows means transforming the entire Victorian sewage system to a whole new sewage system. It would be irresponsible for any government to spend an estimated preliminary cost of anywhere between £150bn to £650bn to transform the entire sewage system. This is a huge amount to spend in an ordinary time, let alone at a time of a continuing health pandemic.

To give some perspective, £150bn is more than the entire schools, policing, and defense budget put together and £650bn is billions more than we have spent on supporting livelihoods and jobs throughout the health pandemic.

In any case, Southern Water seems to be up for the challenge. According to its spokesperson:

Between 2020 and 2025 we are investing almost £2 billion on wastewater services and environmental protection. The challenge is immense. Climate change means we are seeing more and more intense rainstorms while population growth and development eats into greenfields that previously acted as soakaways for stormwater. Concrete and steel alone will not end storm releases but a partnership between Southern Water and other wastewater providers and developers, NGOs, regulators, and central and local government can reduce the nation’s reliance on the system.

Read more: UK seeks to raise drone safety awareness with a photography competition

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