Water Industry News

Black Samphire: UK River Pollution Gets The Hollywood Treatment

The state of the UK’s rivers could now be considered something of a national disgrace, with just 14 per cent of the nation’s waterways classified as having good ecological status. And it seems that this is unlikely to improve any time soon, given new figures showing that sewage spills in rivers and seas around England by water companies more than doubled last year.


Environment Agency stats indicate that there were 3.6 million hours of spills recorded in 2023 compared to the 1.75 million seen in 2022, the BBC reports.


This data was taken from monitoring stations that have been installed at combined sewer overflows, part of the sewerage system that was developed to reduce the risk of sewage backing up into properties during periods of heavy rainfall.


The problem now is that the sewer network is getting so old that it can’t cope with the pressures of population growth and climate change, which is bringing with it more intense and more frequent extreme weather conditions like flooding and drought. Without significant investment in infrastructure, sewage spills are only going to get worse as time goes on.


Black Samphire


It is this national scandal that is now being taken to the silver screen, with the release of environmental folk horror film Black Samphire focusing on the theme of pollution and mirroring the demise of the natural environment.


Produced by charity River Action, the short film tells the tale of a young couple who find themselves inexplicably drawn to a mysterious form of black samphire, the leaves of which have been tainted by the effluent flowing from a local sewage pipe.


From there, one character goes on to develop an obsessive addiction to the plant, while the other finds herself forced into a supernatural confrontation with her partner, ultimately left having to face the consequences of ignoring the warning signs… something that might well strike home for audiences at the moment.


Writer, director and star of the film Cathy Wippell explained the motivation for the film, saying that she used to harvest wild samphire with her mother as a child living in the countryside, as well as being an enthusiastic open water swimmer.


She said: “On July 31st 2023, as we were beginning pre-production, an Unearthed investigation found that over 300,000 hours of sewage spills hit England and Wales most protected habitats in 2022.


“On August 5th 2023, as we were well into pre-production, 57 triathletes were hospitalised after partaking in the Sunderland triathlon championship due to swimming in polluted water. Now, just as we’ve finished the film, the UK’s ‘urgent’ plan to tackle the sewage pollution crisis has been delayed by four months, with no date of publication in sight


“In other words, the water pollution crisis in the UK has been present throughout the whole process of this film. What’s more, it won’t go away anytime soon, unless we take urgent action. The ever increasingly relevant issue of water pollution on the British Isles has shaped Black Samphire from start to finish and will continue to inform the project’s journey.”


Ongoing concerns


Just last week, in fact, water quality testing by River Action found alarmingly high levels of E.coli bacteria in the River Thames, ahead of this year’s Gemini Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge universities.


The charity used a World Health Organization-verified E.coli analyser to test the water between February 28th and March 26th, finding that the river’s E.coli levels were up to ten times higher than what is considered acceptable by the Environment Agency for poor-rated designated bathing water.


When bathing water is classified as poor, official government advice is to avoid entering the water. Testing locations further suggest that the source of this pollution is from utility company Thames Water discharging sewage straight into the river and its tributaries.


Given this development, it may come as no surprise that some rowers have come down with sickness caused by E.coli outbreaks, with Oxford men’s cox William Denegri quoted by the Guardian as saying: “This week we’ve had three people who’ve had to miss sessions because they’ve had stomach bugs. Whether that’s related to E.coli in the river, I don’t know. But it’s certainly not helped our campaign.”


James Wallace, CEO of River Action, described the situation as tragic, adding that these water quality results are a clear indication of what takes place following decades of neglect by unregulated water companies like Thames Water.


He called on the government to ensure that the law is enforced, with polluters prosecuted and held fully to account.

“River Action wants water companies to honour their commitments to the regulators and bill payers by investing in their infrastructure and stop dumping sewage. Everyone should be able to enjoy our rivers and seas without risking their health,” Mr Wallace continued.


Charter for Rivers


As River Action explains, every river in England is now polluted beyond legal limits, which is having a devastating impact on wildlife and biodiversity, as well as having implications for human health.


Climate change is exacerbating the situation, bringing with it more intense storms that increase the use of sewage overflows, as well as driving up agricultural runoff. Algal blooms are also on the rise, which choke the oxygen out of the rivers and put aquatic life at serious risk.


Environmental protections have also been downgraded over the last 15 years or so, with regulations deliberately not enforced and agencies receiving less funding as time goes on.

As such, a Charter for Rivers has been established, calling on political leaders to commit to action that will make rivers healthy and provide the support that both nature and people need by the year 2030.


The charter was launched in Parliament in July last year, backed by more than 70 organisations, highlighting the threat to the nation’s rivers and the urgent action that must be taken in order to save waterways around the country.


If this is something you’d like to prioritise as a business, know that there’s a lot that can be achieved.


The first step is to have a water audit carried out across your site so you can see how and where you’re using water. If you’d like to find out more, get in touch with the Switch Water Supplier team today to see what we can accomplish together.