Filth spewing from numerous sewage pipes has left residents on the Isle of Wight wondering why they are being forced to endure becoming Britain’s sickest island in the latest scandal surrounding water companies
People hoping for an idyllic island lifestyle on one of the UK’s most sought-after locations could be forgiven for expecting sun, sea and very clean sand – but sewage is now threatening to shatter those dreams.
Untreated dirty and infected water is being pumped into the water that surrounds them and that is having a brutal effect on islanders who are becoming sick with stomach bugs and ear infections, with sewage overflow discharge pipes located at otherwise beautiful spots on all corners of the Isle of Wight.
For instance, a wastewater pumping station that is known to discharge untreated sewage into the sea sits at the end of row of beach huts at Gurnard Bay. And at Gurnard beach, on the north-west coast, a pumping station disguised in a row of blue and green beach huts is known to regularly dump sewage into an area where unsuspecting swimmers bathe.
Locals are worried that, despite the promises of their water authority, the disgusting problem is not being taken seriously and the recent stormy weather and associated floods have shown that the island’s Victorian sewerage system is simply not fit for purpose.
Work is under way to address the issue, but it’s not happening nearly quick enough as far as many residents of the island are concerned. Marianne Sullivan, 73, who lives in Bembridge, on the east coast of the island has encountered its sewage problems close up. She said: “I’ve swam in areas where I’ve actually seen, I don’t want to say the word, but floating detritus… it’s just ghastly. It’s beyond awful. I run a litter pick once a month and the amount of stuff we pick up… I don’t want to pick up tampons and used Durex. It’s outrageous.”
According to the i newspaper analysis has found that since the island was hit with a month’s worth of rain on October 25, raw sewage has flooded Gurnard bay from two pipes for a total of 472 hours and 247 hours respectively. Other parts of the island experienced a similar deluge.
More than 100 homes were contaminated when the biblical-level downpour first arrived due to waste water being washed back to shore, which then mixed with floodwater and sewage before backing up through people’s toilets. The most recent annual data shows sewage was dumped onto beaches and rivers from overflows on the island for a combined total of 16,787 hours in 2022. Gurnard sits within the top 10 beaches with the most sewage spills in the country.
Chani Sasiow who lives in the popular tourist town of Ryde on the north-east of the island, began volunteering for Surfers Against Sewage – which operates an app monitoring water quality at more than 450 bathing locations in the UK – after her son got sick swimming in the sewage-laden sea and residents such as her are furious about the impact it is having on their lives.
Though Ryde’s beach is further down the list of beaches with the most sewage spills – number 33 – her son, who is in primary school, recently got gastroenteritis after swimming in the sea there. She said: “As a community the beaches are really part of our identity. But rather than the blue space giving them freedom it’s giving them anxiety. It shouldn’t be like that.” This year alone she has received 428 alerts warning of sewage at her local beach.
And Gurnard local Gail Willows first got into sea swimming during lockdown. She explained: “It was super good for my mental health and I’ve just carried on doing it since. There’s a big community of sea swimmers and a big community of water users. This is our playground really. You don’t live somewhere like this and not spend a lot of time either in the ocean or on it.”
But Ms Willows has been wary of entering the water since her 14-year-old son developed an ear infection after swimming in the sea this summer. “I’m a bit more hesitant to go swimming now if there’s been a release [of sewage],” she says, adding that she sometimes drives 40 minutes in the other direction to swim if the Surfers Against Sewage app tells her there has been a sewage discharge locally. Why should we have to have an app to check whether we’re going to be swimming through crap?”
As is the case with many locations throughout the UK, the central problem is that the Isle of Wight relies on a combined sewer network built in the Victorian era, which sees sewage and surface rainwater carried through the same pipes to treatment plants, where water is supposed to be cleaned before being returned to rivers.
The system is designed to allow untreated sewage to be discharged from overflow points during times of extreme rainfall to stop sewage backing up into homes. This is only supposed to happen in exceptional circumstances but under-investment in the system for decades means these discharges are a regular occurrence.
Labour councillor Richard Quigley explained: “Why is there so much sewage being dumped on the Isle of Wight? It starts with the lack of investment in infrastructure. It just cannot cope. The combined sewage overflows aren’t capable of coping with both the rainfall and the sewage at the same time.”
Southern Water has recognised the problems on the Isle of Wight. In 2020, the island was identified as its catchment area with the highest number of sewage spills, resulting in the water company investing £10 million in a five-year project aimed at slowing the flow of rain on the island, thus reducing pressure on the sewage system. Through the programme, the company plans to install more than 11,000 water butts, which store excess rainwater, in peoples homes and 9,000 sustainable drainage systems on the island, which it is hoped will manage water flow through natural solutions such as ponds and wetlands.
Southern Water said it was piloting “innovative solutions” to storm overflows on the Isle of Wight and would spend £230m on its sewage network by 2030 and on the water company recently published a £1.5 billion investment plan for 2025-30, which it said will “get to the root cause of storm overflows across our region”.