© Surfers against sewage

The UK public health body has called for the need to upgrade the sewage system after many beaches closed when heavy rains prompted water companies to dump their waste into the sea.

“We need a sewerage system fit for the 21st century that stops dumping sewage where possible,” said Jim McManus, president of the British Association of Chief Public Health Officers.

McManus, in an interview with BBC Radio 4 Today program on Friday, warned of ear and eye infections or even hepatitis A contracted in dirty water. “There are health impacts and sometimes you see GPs reporting on that every year.”

Meanwhile, Wales declared a drought on Friday and banned the use of garden hoses in parts of the country for the first time in 40 years.

Natural Resources Wales said the region received 65.5% of its average rainfall for July, putting a strain on public water supplies in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire.

The Environment Agency this week issued pollution alerts for more than 15 beaches, while eight bathing sites along the Sussex coast were closed after Southern Water dumped sewage there.

Regulations allow water companies to discharge sewage and untreated sewage into the sea via combined sewage overflows, which retain the waste along with excess rainwater.

Southern Water and South West Water are among the worst performers. Southern Water, which serves nearly 5million people in Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, was fined a record £90million last year after pleading guilty to thousands of pollution releases in the five years to 2015.

Water companies’ performance in waste water management has fallen to its worst level in a decade, the Environment Agency said in its annual report last month.

The agency called for “jail terms for CEOs and board members whose companies are responsible for the most serious incidents”, adding that company leaders should be “barred so they don’t cannot continue their careers after unlawful environmental damage”.

“Our rivers and beaches are once again being treated like open sewers,” activist group Surfers Against Sewage said on Twitter. “Years of underinvestment are now clearly visible.”