Surfing in UK is my greatest joy – but now it makes me sick
While most people visit the UK coast in summer, UK surfers look forward to winter, when the beaches are deserted and powerful winter storms produce big swells.
As any surfer will tell you, there is really nothing quite like riding the waves. The sun, the salt, the sand and nature; adrenaline and endorphins falling down the face of a wave; the peace and meditation that come with the programming – all culminate in the healing power.
For many, surfing is the only way to reset. It has long been used to relieve depression and other mental health issues, and it got me through the darker days of the pandemic. I have interviewed groups of veterans who use surfing to manage their anxiety levels and PTSD. I have spoken to victims of sex trafficking who, without surfing, would be on a cocktail of unhealthy drugs. And I’ve spoken to parents of autistic kids who swear by surfing for its calming effect. Surfing is more than a sport; for many it is a necessity, and in my opinion it should be treatment on the NHS for a range of conditions.
But now for the very first time surfing has started to make me sick. I have surfed in the UK for almost 20 years and recently have heard many complaints from surfers about infections and illnesses. Only a few weeks ago I suffered from acute stomach problems after surfing waves on one of the beaches (usually Green Flag) in North Devon. While paddling, I was engulfed in a tangy, discolored brown sparkling mud, something I had never seen in this particular spot before. Of course after that I rode a wave towards the shore – but it was already too late, some of that water got into my eyes and nose.
Recently there has been a flood of reports of sewage leaks in the UK. According to Surfers Against Sewage, discharges to UK rivers and oceans have increased 88% in 12 months. The conservation charity also reported that 5,517 wastewater discharge notifications had been issued by water companies in the past year, with one in six days made “impossible to swim”.
As recently as last week, it was reported that 7 million tonnes of raw sewage was dumped into the seas and rivers of Northern Ireland each year, including 3 million tonnes of untreated human waste.
The fallout from 17 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into our ocean
Even if you are not a surfer, you can recognize the gravity of this situation – and how disastrous it is for marine life and our food systems. In Whitstable this summer, for example, seafood companies complained about the quality of their shellfish – some contained E. coli, which, if left untreated in humans, can lead to disability. or death.
Over the summer, Southern Water was fined a record £ 90million for its illegal dumping. “Water companies continue to increase their profits while causing catastrophic damage to river and coastal ecosystems, with limited consequences,” said Hugo Tagholm, CEO of Surfers Against Sewage. “Instead, hefty sums of money are paid out in dividends to investors and CEOs get huge salaries.”
Wastewater treatment is a slow process, problems usually arise during heavy rains when water is drained into our sewer systems and our Victorian plumbing cannot handle that much. Water companies’ storage tanks fill up quickly, which means they have two options: let them overflow into UK waterways and natural habitats or let them back up into the system and potentially into the homes of the people.
A combination of Brexit and Covid made matters worse, with some companies saying there was a shortage of chemicals for water treatment due to supply chain disruption at ports and lack of truck drivers. The Environment Agency gave the green light to these companies to “discharge effluents without fulfilling the conditions” in view of these supply disruptions.
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“Britain is Europe’s dirty man again. Not a single English river is in good shape, ”Shadow Environment Secretary Luke Pollard said in October, ahead of an amendment to the Environment Bill.
After recent changes to the bill, water companies must now take “all reasonable steps” to reduce the “negative impacts” of the discharge of untreated wastewater into waterways. If businesses are to record a drop in their overflows, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t always or that pollution isn’t making its way into our waterways – my recent post-surf stomach is. the proof.
As we see an increase in extreme weather conditions due to the climate crisis, bolder measures and longer term solutions are needed to prevent our coasts from being covered in excreta. Upgrading our wastewater treatment facilities cannot be fast enough – this includes more storm overflows, more treatment facilities, and more “sumps” or porous surfaces in our towns and villages for divert rainwater from our sewage systems, and we must begin to modernize our century-old sewage system so that it can handle the inevitable increase in flooding due to global warming.
The water companies may have promised to spend more money on upgrades, but as UK surfers will tell you, these aren’t even close to happening fast enough.