Water companies were revealed this month to have flushed effluent – including human waste, wet wipes and condoms – into waterways on more than 400,000 separate occasions last year.
Widespread outrage at the figures – released by the Environment Agency – have already stung the government into promising it will toughen-up its Environment Bill currently going through parliament.
The legislation is now expected to be amended to come with a legal duty on water companies to reduce such overflow.
But at the River Stour, in Manningtree, Essex, at sunrise on Saturday, campaigners demanded that more is done to prevent such pollution.
“Throwing sewage in the waters doesn’t feel right – it seems completely ridiculous,” said Kellie Rogers, a meditation practitioner who founded the 100-strong Manningtree Mermaids group.
Speaking to the Harwich and Manningtree Standard newspaper before the swim, the 45-year-old added: “We need to look after the planet and take responsibility for the world we live in, not pollute it.
“We are part of the nature. We need to look after the planet which means looking after our health as well.”
Protesters held signs saying ‘sewage kills’ before taking the plunge into the chilly river.
Water companies are currently allowed to release sewage into rivers or the sea after certain weather events, such as prolonged rainfall, in order to prevent flooding.
But critics – which include environmental groups, various water charities and coastal Tory MPs – say the firms are using the clause as an excuse for not upgrading systems and failing to provide adequate protections.
Despair at the sheer amount of sewage being dumped has been heightened after footage of a seven-foot-wide pipe discharging filth into Langstone Harbour, Hampshire, went viral on social media.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Tory MP for Harwich and North Essex – and one of those demanding action – told protesters in Manningtree that they were in the right to campaign.
He said: “We are waiting to see the detail of the government's new amendment, but I am hopeful that they have got the message.”
The action also came after a director of the Environment Agency was roundly criticised for saying that rivers “are not there for human swimming”.
John Leyland told ITV’s Tonight programme: “I don't swim in rivers and, I would just advise everybody to use the information and the data and not advise anybody to take a risk.”