New engineering report urges action on wastewater

A new report from the National Engineering Policy Centre has called for a significant overhaul of wastewater infrastructure to protect public health.

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Led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, the report is said to be the first to assess how to mitigate the health risks of the recreational use of public water contaminated by human waste. It outlines how processes and infrastructure must be improved to reduce exposure to human faecal pathogens in treated effluent.

Key areas to be addressed include stormwater management, wastewater treatment, monitoring and communication with the public, as well as maintenance and operations. Other recommendations include a long-term wastewater strategy, funding for innovative water treatments, skills development, and the appointment of a dedicated wastewater champion. 

Immediate actions called for in the report include: 

  • Prioritising asset maintenance
  • Improved environmental monitoring
  • A bathing water review
  • Better overflow management
  • Reducing urban runoff
  • Collaborative modelling
  • Increased public engagement
  • Disinfection processes at critical sites

“Our vision for the UK’s future wastewater system is one that ensures the right balance of human health, environmental protection, and economic sustainability,” said Professor David Butler, Chair of the National Engineering Policy Centre working group on wastewater.

“But first we need a strong evidence base to understand and measure public health risks accurately. Such a foundation is essential to inform regulations, standards, and policies, enabling a united effort by governments, regulators, and water companies to mitigate health risks and ensure the safety of open waters for everyone.

“Growing urbanisation and forecasts for more frequent and intense rainfall events due to climate change will mean increasing pressure is put on our ageing wastewater system. Policymakers and industry should carefully consider the actions we have outlined here and their implications in future wastewater infrastructure projects.”

The continuous discharge of treated effluent into rivers, seas and lakes is a major source of human faecal organisms, with water companies coming under increasing scrutiny for providing inadequate infrastructure to deal with the issue. A working group of more than 100 engineers, wastewater experts, the water industry, campaign organisations and policymakers were consulted for the report, which can be read in full here

“Public waterways are a great resource enjoyed by many children and adults and can have a significant positive impact on our health,” said Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer.

“Minimising human faecal organisms in fresh water is a public health priority as well as an environmental one. Whilst there will always be challenges with the efficient management of sewers and sewage treatment works, this report provides clear technical options for how this can realistically be achieved.”