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Voices: Surfing in the UK is my greatest joy – but now it makes me sick

·4-min read
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While most people visit Britain’s coastline during summer, UK surfers look forward to winter, when the beaches are uncrowded and powerful winter storms produce big swells.

As any surfer will tell you, there’s really nothing like riding waves. The sun, salt, sand and nature; the adrenaline and endorphins from dropping down the face of a wave; the peace and meditation that comes in the line-up – it all culminates into healing power.

For many, surfing is the only way to hit reset. It has long been used to aid depression and other mental health issues, and it got me through the darkest days of the pandemic. I’ve interviewed groups of war veterans who use surfing to manage their anxiety levels and PTSD. I’ve spoken to victims of sex trafficking who, without surfing, would be on a cocktail of unhealthy medications. And I’ve spoken to parents of autistic children who swear by surfing for its calming effect. Surfing is more than a sport; for many it’s a necessity, and in my view, it should be a treatment on the NHS for a range of conditions.

But now, for the first time ever, surfing has actually started making me sick. I’ve surfed in the UK for almost 20 years, and recently I have heard numerous complaints from surfers of infections and sickness. Only a few weeks ago, I suffered acute stomach issues after riding waves on one of North Devon’s (usually Green Flag) beaches. While paddling out I was engulfed in pungent, discoloured brown bubbly sludge, something I’ve never seen in this particular spot before. Of course, after that, I rode a wave back into shore – but it was already too late, some of that water went in my eyes and up my nose.

Recently, there has been a stream of reports about sewage leaks in the UK. According to Surfers Against Sewage, discharges into the UK’s rivers and oceans have increased by 88 per cent in 12 months. The conservation charity also reported that 5,517 sewage discharge notifications were issued by water companies in the past year, with one in six days rendered “unswimmable”.

Just last week, it was reported that 7 million tonnes of raw sewage was being discharged into Northern Ireland’s seas and rivers each year, including 3 million tonnes of untreated human waste.

Even if you’re not a surfer you can recognise the seriousness of this situation – and how disastrous this is for marine life and our food systems. In Whitstable this summer, for example, seafood companies complained about the quality of their shellfish – some were found to contain E coli, which if untreated in humans can lead to disability or death.

During the summer, Southern Water was was fined a record £90m for its illegal spills. “Water companies continue to increase profits while causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences,” said Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage. “Instead, eye-watering sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and huge pay packets are enjoyed by CEOs.”

Treating sewage is a slow process, problems usually occur during heavy rains when water is flushed into our sewage systems and our Victorian plumbing can only handle so much. Water companies’ storage tanks fill up fast and this means they have two options – let it overflow into British waterways and natural habitats or let it back up into the system and potentially into people’s homes.

A combination of Brexit and Covid has exacerbated the situation, with some companies stating that there has been a shortage of water treatment chemicals because of supply chain disruption at ports and a lack of HGV drivers. The Environment Agency gave these companies a green light to “discharge effluent without meeting the conditions” in light of these supply failures.

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“Britain is again the dirty man of Europe. Not one English river is in a healthy state,” said the shadow environment secretary, Luke Pollard, in October, before an amendment to the Environment Bill.

After recent changes to the bill, water companies now have to take “all reasonable steps” to reduce “adverse impacts” of releasing untreated sewage into watercourses. While companies must record a drop in their overflows, it doesn’t mean it’s not still happening or that pollution isn’t finding its way into our waterways – my recent post-surf stomach is proof of this.

As we see an increase in extreme weather due to the climate crisis, bolder steps and longer-term solutions are needed to stop our coastlines being covered in excrement. Upgrading our sewage treatment facilities cannot come fast enough – this includes more storm overflows, more treatment facilities and more “soakaways” or porous surfaces in our cities, towns and villages to divert rainwater from our sewage systems, plus we need to start upgrading our century-old sewage system so it can handle the inevitable increase in flooding due to global warming.

Water companies may have vowed to spend more money on improvements, but as British surfers will tell you, these are not even close to happening quickly enough.

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