Britain’s sewage pollution is one of the worst in Europe because water companies prioritise profits over people and planet, says Hugo Tagholm of Surfers Against Sewage
Water pollution from a sewage sluice at Flint Dock in North Wales
Storm fronts sweep across Cornwall in winter bringing spectacular weather that can change from driving rain and buffeting winds to crisp sunshine and doldrums-calm in a matter of hours. As a peninsula, jutting out into the wild ocean, the south-west is blessed with some of the country’s best coastline for surfing, swimming and a plethora of other, fast-emerging water sports. It’s a mecca for those who love water, a place where people can embrace the raw power of the Atlantic.
Unfortunately it’s also a place where water lovers experience the raw sewage wantonly discharged by long-negligent water boards.
It was probably in Cornwall that the national passion for water sports first emerged, a wave crested in the early ’90s by itinerant surfers and aquatic enthusiasts and carried on a current of enthusiasm into coves, beaches, rivers and coastlines – enjoyed by all ages and backgrounds in all corners of the country. Water sports are among the fastest-growing hobbies in the UK and the pandemic has shown just how much our beaches, rivers and ocean mean to the public, revealed by national polls as some of the most-missed spaces during national lockdowns.
This growing community of people taking to our seas and rivers for enjoyment, health and wellbeing is fast becoming the nation’s environmental surveillance team, a canary in the coal mine for marine and river pollution. They witness, monitor and expose the pollution they find first-hand as they plunge themselves into the blue lifeblood of the nation.
We find ourselves in the midst of a new sewage scandal, a “second wave” of toxic effluent and filth caused by subsequent industry complacency and inaction, together with a myopic fixation on delivering profits to shareholders
It was their visceral experiences of water contamination that led to Surfers Against Sewage being formed in 1990, in response to the first taint of sewage pollution infecting the waters. Surfers were literally sick of getting ill when they did what they loved – riding waves. So a small surfing group from St Agnes in Cornwall decided to make a stand for people and planet.
At this time, the newly privatised water industry was systematically discharging raw sewage through long outfalls into the sea, relying on “dispersal” as a cheap way to treat their toxic effluent. This was completely ineffective, of course, and had the effect of polluting fragile marine environments, destroying bathing water quality and dumping sanitary waste on our beaches. Inevitably, it made water users ill.
Energetic and highly visible campaigning from gasmask-wearing, surfboard-carrying activists helped raise public awareness of the issue, but it was tough new European legislation, as part of the Water Framework Directive, that forced water companies to act and invest in stopping the wave of sewage lapping at our shores. In the 1990s legislation and enforcement were crucial to progress on water quality and official EU and DEFRA-designated Bathing Water improvements – it seemed there was simply no way the water industry could bypass their responsibilities.
But fast forward to 2021 and we find ourselves in the midst of a new sewage scandal, a “second wave” of toxic effluent and filth caused by subsequent industry complacency and inaction, together with a myopic fixation on delivering profits to shareholders. This has taken precedence over protecting the environment, the people and communities that rely on clean water.
Surfers and swimmers again find themselves on the frontline of suffering from pollution. I myself have been caught unawares at times, surfing at the mouth of rivers when suddenly the rancid stench of sewage surrounds me, forcing a hasty exit. Or swimming through crystal clear waters only to traverse a slick of human excrement, recently discharged from a sewer overflow.
This is perhaps unsurprising, as water companies were responsible for over 400,000 separate sewage pollution events in 2020 alone, totalling over 3.1 million hours of sewage discharging. That is 8,500 hours of pollution every single day of the year. Thousands of sewage discharges happened at official Bathing Waters, where one would never expect to come into contact with human turds. Our Bathing Waters now languish at the bottom of European league tables and only 14 per cent of our rivers meet the Environment Agency’s “Good Ecological Status”, as a result of sewage and other pollution. This is simply not good enough in the wake of our hosting of the COP26 conference, calling for urgent action to protect and restore our natural world.
After an initial burst of action in the 1990s, the water industry has fallen behind in sewage investment, which they are paid to treat. A regime of self-reporting and weakened regulation means they can literally leave us in the shit without getting in any themselves. Even the recent record £90m fine of Southern Water for “deliberate sewage pollution” doesn’t seem to be acting as a deterrent.
This is why we recently launched the Safer Seas and Rivers Service, to track and trace sewage pollution, alert swimmers and surfers in real time, and empower them to campaign for change. It’s why we publish damning annual data, showing the level of pollution water companies now preside over, and also why the sewage pollution issue is back at the top of public and political debate.
The public is rightly angry, seeing shareholders reap huge profits while polluting our waters with seeming impunity. Interestingly, it is estimated that the maximum cost of dealing with the worst of the sewage pollution is around £60 billion, which is exactly the amount shareholders have extracted from water companies over the last 30 years.
If we can’t solve our sewage problem and hold water companies to account, how we will ever solve the climate crisis? This is a manageable, affordable and aspirational campaign to drive forward. Why shouldn’t water companies pay to fix the problem out of shareholder profits? Who wouldn’t want rivers fit to swim in, beaches free of sewage and a vision of thriving rivers and seas for all? The health of these environments is vital to us all, we cannot allow water companies off the hook.
Pressure from the public has just forced the government to pass an Environment Bill amendment on sewage pollution and, while we don’t feel this goes far enough, it must now kickstart a renewed effort from all for ambitious and measurable action to finally end sewage pollution.
Hugo Tagholm is CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, taking action from the beach front to the front benches of Parliament. SAS connects and empowers over 100,000 ocean activists annually and drives government legislation to protect our seas across four environmental pillars: plastic pollution, water quality, climate change and rewilding our ocean. He is part of Edinburgh University Ocean Leaders programme and was recently awarded a Doctorate of Science by Exeter University for services to the marine environment. He was made Environmentalist of the Year 2021 by the Save the Waves coalition. More info at: @hugoSAS and www.sas.org.uk