Fighting the 'second wave'
Hugo Tagholm leads the national marine conservation and campaigning charity Surfers Against Sewage. He is part of the Edinburgh University Ocean Leaders programme and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Science by Exeter University for his services to the marine environment.
The perilous journey of water, from cloud to coastline, puts ocean lovers on the frontline of pollution.
Even before water begins its terrestrial journey, it is suspected that clouds, snow and raindrops carry tiny fragments of microplastics. As water continues its journey from mountains to the sea, through what should be the blue capillaries, veins and arteries of any nation, it is exposed to a plethora of pollutants, from agriculture, manufacturers, urban environments, water companies, the medical industry and much more. Runoff pours off fields, taking antibiotics, fertilizers and pesticides into precious rivers. Sewer systems spew out untreated sewage through a network of pipes, bringing microplastics, yet more antibiotics and potentially harmful pathogens. The detritus from urban society washes off streets to culverted rivers taking with it the packaging from everyday lives, the wear and tear of tyres, the oil and salt mixed into a shining gleam.
This cocktail of pollutants heads down increasingly engineered rivers, decimating habitats, altering chemistry, expunging oxygen and creating a wholly degraded ecosystem, where both wildlife and people struggle to thrive. As polluted rivers meet the ocean they disgorge their volatile mixture into the spaces we love and fight hard to conserve. The beach and coastline are both the frontline of ocean recreation but also ocean campaigning. It is there that most of us enjoy the wonders of the big blue. It is also there that we witness the impacts on the marine environment. The tidelines of plastic pollution. The sewage pollution. The chemicals. The washed-up wildlife.
This is where many ocean campaigners begin their journey, tracing the source of the pollution, identifying the culprit. Often, these are upstream, sometimes out to sea. But all are contributing to degrading the water cycle, of which the ocean is centre. This is where Surfers Against Sewage began our campaign in 1990, as surfers became sick of becoming sick from simply going surfing on the coast of Cornwall. This experience sparked a national campaign to mobilise citizens, challenge government and confront industry.
In the 1970s and 80s the UK was often described as the Dirty Man of Europe for its unilateral failure to control sewage and agricultural pollution of rivers and seas, and all manner of other pollutants that were being spewed out into the environment by industry, power stations and vehicles. Our beaches bore the brunt of this environmental negligence, with sewage-filled seas and coastlines strewn with sanitary waste. For a country famed for our maritime history and seaside holidays, this treatment of our blue spaces was tantamount to environmental vandalism.
Surfers Against Sewage swiftly became high profile eco-activists, clad in wetsuits and gasmasks, carrying surfboards into boardrooms and political meetings that still barely knew you could even surf in the UK, let alone get sick whilst doing it. The charity became a catalyst for change, highlighting the need for faster sewerage infrastructure investment, collating health evidence from ‘contaminated’ water users and connecting previously disparate coastal communities into what became one of the best-recognised environmental campaign movements of the 1990s. We are extremely proud of those early campaigns and the progress they helped deliver for our coastline against that ‘first wave’ of sewage pollution.
We are now in the midst of a ‘second wave’ of sewage and agricultural pollution that means the UK languishes at the bottom of the table of Bathing Water Quality for European countries. Last year our beaches suffered over 2,500 separate sewage pollution events at designated Bathing Waters and Blue Flag Beaches alone. Who knows how many spills there were across the rest of the UK’s 11,000 miles of coastline? Our river network, now used by so many for wild swimming, recreation and enjoyment, bore the brunt of the pollution.
A staggering 400,000 separate pollution events discharging a horrendous 3.1 million hours of raw sewage into the blue arteries of the country. Many of these also flow onto the beaches that we all want to enjoy at this time of year. Shockingly, just 14% of our rivers meet Good Ecological Status and none meet Good Chemical Status. Surfers and water users are again on the frontline.
Alongside agriculture, our privatised water companies, have squarely positioned the UK to reclaim the title of the Dirty Man of Europe. Environmental regulators have also been woefully underfunded, limiting or removing their ability to hold these repeat polluters to account. These huge monopolies operate with near impunity and even when they are investigated and fined, they simply build the costs into their books rather than engage with long-term reform.
All this at a time of climate and ecological emergency. We need a decade of radical change for our rivers and coastline. Just imagine what this could deliver – thriving rivers for nature and people; pristine, clean beaches, teeming with life and underpinning the health and wellbeing of communities nationwide; and an end to industry treating our rivers and ocean as a dumping ground for their waste.
If governments are serious about protecting the environment, they should get serious about restoring the health of all our blue spaces. Ocean users, campaigners and citizen scientists at the frontline of our beaches must continue to expose the issues affecting our most precious liquid.
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