We speak to Hugo Tagholm of Surfers Against Sewage about disreputable water companies, collective outrage and why the 2020s could be the most radical decade ever for environmental action
Being into surfing involves an almost pathological checking of wave-forecasting apps, especially if you’re in the UK and therefore at the mercy of fickle swell and unhelpful wind directions. For the past year, once I can see there might be waves, I then log onto the Safer Seas Service app, to see whether my local water company, Southern Water, owned by a global asset management firm based in Australia, has used recent rainfall as an excuse to dump raw human sewage at my local beach.
If they have, there’s a decision to be made. How much do you want it? Friends vary in their approach. Some sit it out, others tell me they’d rather not know, while a good number will list the illnesses, from stomach trouble to ear and eye infections, that they believe directly correlate to time spent in the sea.
“It was a decade of activists coming together. People against big business, the establishment, and the state”
Things were visibly worse in the 1980s and 1990s, when surfers had to contend with condoms, tampons and sometimes actual human poo floating in the water beside them at their favourite breaks. Porthtowan in Cornwall was famously dubbed “Porthtampon”, such was the problem there. “Sewage pollution was particularly acute then. It contributed to the UK being known as ‘the dirty man of Europe’,” says Hugo Tagholm, Chief Executive of Surfers Against Sewage (SAS), a surfer-led environmental charity based in St. Agnes, which formed in 1990 in response to surfers’ frustration with the sewage problem.
Founder Chris Hines MBE and his fellow surf activists pulled all manner of attention-grabbing media stunts, from being photographed wearing gas masks with their wetsuits to chasing politicians around with giant inflatable turds. It had a powerful impact at both a local and national level, including on Hugo, who remembers surfing in Cornwall back then. “Action was clearly needed,” he says, “SAS was there with other voices campaigning and drawing attention to the issue, and that was what first got me into this rebellious organisation,” he says.
From the pair who fought McDonald’s in the courts to Swampy hiding out in his tunnel to stop a road expansion, rebellion was rife in the 90s, and Hugo sees a lot of parallels with environmental movements today. “It was a decade of activists coming together. People against big business, the establishment, and the state, connecting their outrage on big issues, be that sewage pollution, trees being cut down to build roads… it’s like what’s happening today on climate, plastic pollution and now sewage again.”
Campaigning by SAS and others in the 90s was helped by laws coming out of the EU, which obliged water companies, newly privatised in 1989, to invest in tackling sewage pollution. “We had a rising tide of legislation that really forced water companies to act, they had to make the investment in water treatment works for certain size populations… and regulators were funded to make sure that work was happening and to monitor it,” he says.
“You’ve actually got to break out of the cage, and tell the authorities that change needs to happen”
I ask Hugo why sewage is a problem in the UK again now? “We’re in a falling tide of some of that legislation. There has been too much self-reporting and self-regulation and a defunded environment agency [who are meant to enforce laws to protect the environment from pollution],” says Hugo. “The government has taken its eye off the ball and water companies have been able to get away with whatever they wanted. We’re dealing with three million hours of sewage pollution going into our rivers and coastlines. This weekend I was out getting waves but dodging sewage, there were a number of places I couldn’t go to.”
Sewage pollution may be less starkly visible than it was in the 80s and 90s but “people can still be swimming in shit” says Hugo. That’s not to say all beaches are bad all the time, it’s always in a state of flux. This is why SAS set up the Safer Seas Service app, which I along with 70,000 other users, regularly check for real-time info. The app reports discharges from combined sewer overflows (CSOs) being released into rivers and seas. CSOs are designed to be used as an emergency after extreme rainfall to reduce pressure on the sewage system but they’re increasingly being used at times of low rainfall or no rainfall at all. Plus, we have more extreme rainfall now, due to the climate crisis. In 2020, SAS’s Water Quality Report found that raw sewage was released onto English and Welsh beaches 2,900 times.
“This weekend I was out getting waves but dodging sewage”
Water companies, who have paid out £57bn in share dividends since 1989, have claimed it’s too expensive to fix or modernise the infrastructure in their networks, but it’s clear they’ve banked taking the fines, if they’re issued at all, into their business model. Southern Water was fined £90 million in July 2021 for consistently discharging sewage, with the judge noting that “history shows that fines of hundreds of thousands or low millions of pounds have not had any effect on the defendant’s offending behaviour”.
During the pandemic, record numbers of people started regularly getting into the sea, be that for surfing or swimming or other water sports, realising, as surfers have always known, how amazing that dose of blue health is for our physical and mental wellbeing. A whole new cohort have seen how essential it is to protect these environments for people and planet, and there’s been a groundswell of moral outrage at the behaviour of water companies, with surfers from SAS linking up with groups of sea swimmers, and even some unlikely celebrity allies including the former Undertones frontman turned clean river advocate Feargal Sharkey and Deborah Meaden of Dragon’s Den fame, to pressure the government to do more.
“The government has now said they’ve got what they need to hold water companies to account, and we will be watching and scrutinising very carefully”
They focused on lobbying for an amendment to the environment bill in the House of Lords, which would make water companies legally accountable to reduce the amount of sewage they put in the sea. The government then got their MPs to vote against the amendment causing more anger around the country, especially in Cornwall, where it will now surely be difficult for Tory MPs to retain their seats in the next election. The final version of the environment bill did however have some key wins for SAS and other clean water campaigners, including the requirement for water companies to provide real-time info on CSOs (it was previously voluntary) and a legal duty on water companies to reduce the adverse impact from CSOs. “It didn’t go as far as we wanted it to go,” says Hugo. “But the government has now said they’ve got what they need to hold water companies to account, and we will be watching and scrutinising very carefully.”
He doesn’t think MPs realised it would become such a big issue. “It shows how much people care about their local beaches,” he says. “Our local communities are the eyes and ears of their beach, and surfers and swimmers can see these issues live and direct. People never want to see sewage pollution going into their favourite spots, and [we need to] recognise that these bathing spots are vital amenities that bring so much to the health of the local community and economy.”
It seems surprising that Surfers Against Sewage, an environmental charity that’s founded and run by those obsessed by what is ultimately a niche pursuit, would have such political clout but there is strong precedent for it globally. The Surfrider Foundation in the US has had a huge roster of environmental wins since it was launched in 1984, including halting property developments and road building that would harm the coastal environment, campaigning for the reauthorisation and adherence to the Clean Water Act and against sewage discharge waivers, and banning toxic chemicals from sunscreen.
“It was a first-hand experience of what surfers are capable of when we unite together”
While in Australia, the surfer and environmental activist Belinda Baggs recently co-founded Surfers for Climate, after being part of the Fight for the Bight movement, which saw tens of thousands of surfers successfully mobilise against oil drilling in a vast marine park in Southern Australia. “It was a first-hand experience of what surfers are capable of when we unite together. The passion of your local beach and riding waves brings together a diverse and eclectic group of passionate individuals who are unstoppable,” she says.
During that time, she also visited Heron Island on the Great Barrier Reef for a deep dive into one of the most fragile ecosystems on earth, learning from scientists, political and business experts on the problems it was facing. “The facts were like a beat down on a heavy day,” she says. “Surfers for Climate was founded off this fire. Surfers are in a position to be in the driving seat. From CEOs to bankers, MPs, scientists, doctors, and artists. Surfers are everywhere and together we can force this positive change to protect their local beaches, and influence and implement solutions that will allow us all to continue riding waves in thriving oceans for centuries to come.”
“Surfers are so reliant on a healthy ecosystem, we experience changes on a daily basis that people who aren’t in the sea wouldn’t notice. Right now, the sea temperature in my hometown of Newcastle [New South Wales] is three degrees above the average. It’s great for surfing in boardies but the local ecology can’t cope. These experiences don’t come from a text-book but real lived and relatable experiences, messages that matter which we can amplify. Surfers absolutely have an obligation to care for and defend the coastline and beyond. You can’t continue taking without giving back,” she says.
Hugo agrees surfers need to give back and doesn’t think it’s a given that just because you’re in the water a lot it’s enough to make you an environmentalist. “The surfers I admire are the ones that truly take action. Whether it’s helping us on our campaigns, joining beach cleans, marching on the streets in Glasgow at COP26 or coming to the paddle out before the G7. The people that sometimes sacrifice the surf session to go and do the environmental thing and give some time to this,” he says. “You’ve actually got to break out of the cage, and tell the authorities that change needs to happen.”
“If we found a planet in the state the earth is currently in, we’d be over the moon. Let’s protect it and stop polluting it”
And it’s the energy of those surfers and environmentalists that gives him hope for the future. “I am optimistic. I see good people wanting to do the right things. I think the 2020s will be the most radical decade of environmental action ever both because the evidence is stark, and people will not stop acting until we see sufficient levels of progress from business and government. It’s up to them, we can’t just do this by campaigns asking people not to flush cotton buds down the toilet, or refill their coffee cup, it’s got to be systemic large-scale widespread change.”
“We’ve got people pursuing space travel and getting to other planets, but if we found a planet in the state the earth is currently in, we’d be over the moon. Let’s protect it and stop polluting it.”
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