Sewage disposed of in UK waters means that coastal communities are enduring an ongoing, hidden health crisis. Reports from open-water bathers poured in between October 2021 and September 2022 – ranging from skin rashes and bladder infections, to vomiting, sickness and gastrointestinal diseases.
Even Polio, thought to have been eradicated in the UK in 1984, has been found alive and well in the waterways around London.
The “chemical cocktail” of sewage, slurry and plastic can “contaminate rivers with biological material that pose potential risks to swimmers, canoeists, paddlers and pets,” says the UK Parliament in its 2021-2022 report on the Water Quality of Rivers.
So what can be done about the clear public health risk?
Surfers Against Sewage are a Cornwall-based but nationally operating, activism and campaigning group that advocates for cleaner seas and rivers all over the UK.
The movement began in the 1990s when the water quality and the amount of sewage in UK seas provoked a response from surfers – now, 30 years on, the movement encompasses all beach-goers from dog walkers to sandcastle builders.
Andrew Coleman, a Surfers Against Sewage representative for Brighton and one of the first regional representatives outside of Cornwall tells me: “I was sick of surfing in raw sewage whenever the short sea storm outfalls were used in Brighton. We campaigned for an end to these storm discharges and proper sewage treatment. Eventually, because of our campaigning and EU laws, water companies were forced to build stormwater storage tunnels and improve treatment plants.”
The idea of swimming in raw sewage is perhaps unbelievable, but in just one year, Surfers Against Sewage received 720 sickness reports to their app, the Safer Seas and Rivers Service, more than double that of the previous year.
We're #SickofSewage! Are you? 🤢
It's time to #EndSewagePollution. Pledge your support for cleaner rivers and seas, and fight back against the profiteering water industry. ✊ 🌊
Join SAS today: https://t.co/hK9zGlPCWT
📷 PA Media pic.twitter.com/mhWoleLZxX
— Surfers Against Sewage (@sascampaigns) November 24, 2022
The source of the stench
UK water companies rely on storm outfalls to cope with sewage disposal in lieu of a more updated treatment system. In a storm outfall, water is transported from the land in times of heavy rainfall to the sea – carrying with it a nasty cocktail of pollutants that are making surfers and other open-water enthusiasts sick.
Southern Water, sewage treatment company repeatedly accused of pollution, say that 95% of storm outfall discharge is water, but Surfers Against Sewage have found that in 2021 alone, agricultural chemicals, animal waste and domestic raw sewage were washed, along with excess rainfall, into seas and rivers for a total of 2.7 million hours from a network of 18,000 outfalls.
Another contributing factor, according to Coleman, is “the terrible profiteering of water companies.” The two worst-performing companies in terms of sewage dumping, Southern Water and South West Water, continually report a loss in profits and still paid their CEOs a collective wage of over £2 million in the last financial year despite the water industry also paying a total of £965 million in dividends to shareholders.
The money must be coming from somewhere and Surfers Against Sewage suspect that our environment is the one coughing up. Just this week, the Industry Regulations Committee (IRC) found that Ofwat, the governing body of water companies, was not sufficiently investing to reduce the overuse of storm outfalls in an effort to keep bills low.
Mismanagement of water, already a contributing factor to the 40% deficit in global freshwater supplies expected by 2030, is yet another reason for sewage-ridden waters.
“Dry spilling” is the illegal use of storm outfalls in periods where there has not been excessive rainfall. In Surfers Against Sewage’s 2022 Water Quality report, studies found that there had been nearly 150 “dry spills” between October 2021 and September 2022. Of these, 41 occurred in the summer of 2022, one of the hottest and driest on record.
Speaking to the Guardian, Amy Slack, co-author of the Water Quality report and former head of campaigns and policy at Surfers Against Sewage, said that the government takes a laissez-faire approach to regulating sewage dumped by the water industry.
“Until those in power show they are serious about cracking down on the profiteering polluters of the water industry, sewage will continue to be dumped into the UK’s rivers and seas, at huge cost to public and environmental health,” Slack said.
Surfers Against Sewage are campaigning to reduce the use of storm outfalls by 90% and they want to see the use of outfalls in bathing water come to an end. Their Dirty Money Petition demands that companies are prevented from pollution profiteering by means of more investment into wastewater treatment.
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“Not just surfers, more than sewage”
In Coleman’s opinion, storm outfall misuse by water companies is a “huge pollution threat” that is only amplified by climate change. This is why Surfers Against Sewage is increasingly concerned with plastic pollution, the climate emergency and the general well-being of the ocean.
In a time when there is an estimated 171 trillion pieces of plastic in our oceans, Surfers Against Sewage is establishing a Plastic Free Community network that aims to educate people on the effects of single-use plastic and cut them out of daily use.
A huge congrats to our newly awarded Plastic Free Commununities, trailblazing the way to stopping the tide of plastic pollution at source. 🙌
— Surfers Against Sewage (@sascampaigns) March 16, 2023
Surfers Against Sewage also publishes brand audit reports that provide insight to the capacity for pollution that each company has, even allowing you to view the data that is specific to each UK region. All of this is in effort to help consumers make informed choices where the environment is concerned.
“A lot more people are using the sea, rivers and lakes for swimming, paddle boarding and kitesurfing than when SAS started,” says Coleman. For Surfers Against Sewage, ensuring the protection of our rivers and oceans is crucial for everyone, whether or not you’re a surfing enthusiast.
They are dedicated to protecting coastal communities from the effects of climate change. Occupants of Fairbourne, a village in Wales, for example, are set to become the UK’s first “climate refugees” as rising sea levels will make the village uninhabitable by 2054.
Surfers Against Sewage are having a notable impact on the UK’s waters: they have created the UK’s largest volunteer beach cleaning team and their campaigns have helped to ensure that 98.5% of UK waters pass safety standards compared to 27% in 1990.
However there is still more that needs to be done, and as always, it comes down to government legislation. Surfers Against Sewage is passionate about empowering people so that they have a greater chance of contacting local authorities, resisting harmful policies, and preventing passivity on the climate and pollution issue.
There seems to be an unshakeable level of support behind the movement. As Coleman concludes: “many people are rightly outraged” at the archaic management of sewage and the continuous complacency with which oceans and rivers are treated.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Surfers at Polzeath beach, Cornwall, England. Featured Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons.