Protests over water firms dumping sewage in rivers

Katie Pavid

Thousands of people have taken to rivers and waterways to protest against water companies dumping sewage in them.

The day of action, organised by the charity Surfers Against Sewage, involved 12 protests across the UK.

In Manningtree, Essex, wild swimmers marched and dressed up in mermaid and giant poo costumes by the River Stour.

Anglian Water, which admitted it dumped sewage in the river 389 times last year, said it was investing millions of pounds to rectify the “historic issue”.

River Stour protest

TazzyBro Photography

Worthing protest

Fistral beach

Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Catherine Arnold, a nutritional therapist who helped organised the Manningtree protest, said: “We are so lucky to live in an area of outstanding natural beauty and we need to protect it. We don’t release sewage into our gardens, why would we release it into our rivers?”

Water companies discharged raw sewage into British rivers 372,533 times last year, for a total of more than 2.6m hours, according to data from the Environment Agency.

Untreated sewage is only meant to be discharged into rivers in exceptional circumstances, for example, during heavy rainfall.

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Each protest targeted a separate water company:

•Edinburgh – Scottish Water

•Tynemouth – Northumbrian Water

•Belfast – Northern Ireland Water

•Scarborough – Yorkshire Water

•Bath – Wessex Water

•Manningtree, Essex – Anglian Water

•Worthing – Southern Water

•Newquay – South West Water

•Abergavenny – Welsh Water

•Victoria Embankment Garden, London – Thames Water

•Stoke Bardolph, Nottinghamshire – Severn Trent

•New Brighton Beach, Wirral – United Utilities

River Stour protest

TazzyBro Photography

Nic Bury, professor of environmental toxicology at the University of Suffolk, is running a project looking at E. coli counts in rivers. A sample he took in Manningtree showed an E. coli count of 1000cfu/100ml. The threshold for good bathing water is less than 500cfu/100ml.

He said: “The situation is quite bad. Every time I sample in the river I’m shocked about the lack of biodiversity so I’m very concerned about it.”

children protesting

TazzyBro Photography

Anna Helm Baxter

TazzyBro Photography

Campaigner Anna Helm Baxter, who organised the Manningtree protest, said the situation was “completely unacceptable”.

“It’s essential to keep up the pressure on the water companies and the government, who need to not only create stronger policies, and shorter timelines, but also make sure that they enforce their own rules,” she added.

River Stour protest

TazzyBro Photography


‘Riddled with sewage’

The government announced a plan to overhaul the sewage system last month.

Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage, said it did not go far enough. The charity is calling for an end to sewage discharge into British bathing waters by 2030.

Belfast protest against Northern Ireland Water

Surfers Against Sewage

He said British rivers had become pollution superhighways “riddled with sewage, chemicals and filth”.

“The river and beach-loving public have had enough,” he said. “Water companies must make urgent investments, funded from their vast profits, to turn off their filthy pollution tap and restore our rivers and seas.”

Protesters in the Warleigh Weir, near Bath

Surfers Against Sewage

swimmers dressed as mermaids

Lucie De Brissac Browning

An Anglian Water spokesperson said: “Data from our 2021 monitoring programme tells us our performance continues to improve, and the increasing visibility we have of combined sewer overflow (CSO) activity gives us even more opportunities to act faster in the areas where we can have most environmental benefit.

“But we agree that CSOs are no longer an acceptable way of dealing with flooding and overloaded sewers and we need to do more.”

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