‘Clean water is a basic right’: protesters against sewage in seas and rivers gather across the UK

“Cut the crap” and “Fishes not faeces” read some of the many colourful slogans at Gyllyngvase Beach in Falmouth where hundreds of protesters gathered on Saturday to demand action over the scourge of sewage pollution in British waterways.

Wearing fancy dress and waving inflated plastic poops, they paddled into the bay on surfboards, kayaks and standup paddle boards – as did protesters at more than 30 other events across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – with the Cornish charity Surfers Against Sewage leading the way.

“We know exactly what’s going in the sea,” Demi Taylor, one of several key speakers, told the Falmouth crowd. “No matter what the water companies try to tell us, if it looks like poo, it smells like poo and it tastes like poo, it probably is poo!

“We’re here today to say the ocean doesn’t owe us anything; in fact we owe the ocean absolutely everything. At least we have the choice about whether we go into the sea [when it’s polluted] – the marine life out there doesn’t. So we’re here advocating on behalf of the environment.”

Statistics show there were more than 464,056 sewage spills in England’s rivers and coastlines in 2023 – a 54% increase on the previous year – totalling more than 3.6m hours. South West Water, the local utility, accounted for 58,249 of those spills, totalling 530,737 hours.

Lauren Holford attended the protest with her partner Mike and their two-year-old son Roo. “We’re here because we love going swimming in the ocean. But there have been so many sewage alerts locally – it felt like there was one every day at one point,” she said. “We’re also thinking about future generations. What’s it going to be like for them?”

Lauren, Mike and Roo Holford. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

Giles Bristow, chief executive of Surfers Against Sewage, told the crowd: “This is our beach, our ocean, and we are reclaiming this place from the polluters. A year ago today we had an apology from the water companies, but did they change? No. Pollution events jumped last year, apparently because it was raining. It’s a shame they didn’t know it rains here.”

Under exceptional circumstances, water companies are permitted to allow sewage into waterways, but Bristow said this was intended for “really heavy rain, to stop it backing up into people’s houses”.

“The definition of ‘exceptional’ feels like it’s become more and more loose, and it’s almost become an operational exercise to keep costs down,” he said. “But we cannot keep putting people’s health at risk and allowing companies to profit from polluting the environment.”

Sewage has become an especially topical issue. In Brixham, Devon, there have been 46 confirmed cases of cryptosporidiosis, a waterborne parasite that causes diarrhoea. Locals have now been told the tap water is again safe to drink after having been advised previously to boil it. And in Cumbria’s Lake Windermere, it was just revealed that 10m litres of raw sewage were accidentally pumped into the beauty spot in late February.

“Look at the news, it’s horrendous,” said Taylor, a surf film festival director. “Everyone should have access to clean water and clean air, they are just basic human rights.”

Film festival director Demi Bristow and co-founder of SAS Chris Hines. Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

Bristow said there were many factors causing the problems, but although Surfers Against Sewage was a charity that rendered it “beyond party politics”, it was time for a change of regulation as well as greater imagination in planning. “We’re not sure as an organisation whether nationalisation of waterways is the right way forward because it hasn’t exactly worked in the devolved countries, but we certainly want to have a nature-led approach to solutions. We need to think about rewilding, rewooding, slow run-off and soft urban areas.

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“At present, we’ve got a growing population, climate change and increased urban development. We’ve also got Victorian water systems, and we’ve been building badly on top of those systems for the past 100 years. We haven’t been investing properly to keep people safe.”

And yet, according to analysis, the water companies paid £2.5bn in shareholder dividends in the past two years and added £8.2bn to their net debt from 2021-23. Taylor said: “I don’t know any other industry in which you can fail so catastrophically and do your job so badly and yet receive a great reward in terms of cash.”

Natalie Pramuk, a marine management student Photograph: Jonny Weeks/The Observer

As the protest wound down, Natalie Pramuk, a marine management student at Exeter University, exited the water. Despite the grim cause for the paddle-out, she was in optimistic mood. “This is the first time I’ve done a paddle-out,” she said. “It was exciting. The energy was really good and it was a powerful movement of people coming together – all different people who care about the sea for many different reasons. It’s really empowering. I hope this raises awareness.”

Chris Hines, co-founder of Surfers Against Sewage, arrived in Falmouth after the paddle-out and said: “We campaigned hard through the 90s and there was a massive investment – £5.5bn worth of sewage treatment works were built – but unfortunately everybody has taken their eye off the ball and the water companies have pulled their pants down and started shitting in the sea again.

“I’m immensely proud to see how many people came today and to see the spirit of people who use the sea. If you love something, you’ll do anything you can to protect it. People are clearly angry and they’re going to make change happen again.”


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