I’m heading to Hastings this Saturday for 6 weeks of fieldwork. My first task when I get there is to organise a local paddle-out as part of Surfers Against Sewage’s national day of action on 18 May. A paddle-out is a protest where surfers, paddle-boarders, swimmers and anyone else who fancies it go into the sea (or lake or river) to show water companies and regulators that we’ve had enough of raw sewage.

This protest matters to me for three reasons.

First, 2023 was the worst year on record for raw sewage pollution in the UK. Untreated wastewater was discharged into seas and rivers for more than 3.6 million hours – this is more than double the duration for 2022. The deteriorating health of the UK’s seas and rivers poses massive threats to both humans and wildlife, and to the long-term sustainability of our ecosystems.

Second, I grew up by the Thames in London – I remember swimming in the river there with my grandad. In fact, wild swimming (as it’s called now) in rivers, lakes and seas around the UK, was a big part of my childhood. It makes me sad my daughter can’t enjoy the same freedom.

Third, despite increasing public outrage, the UK’s water companies seem unable – or unwilling – to solve the problem. Thames Water is facing bankruptcy and could potentially be re-nationalised. Both Thames Water and Southern Water have asked Ofwat, the regulator, for permission to raise customer bills in oder to pay for repairs and improvements. Southern Water wants to increase bills by a whopping 74 per cent. Meanwhile, both companies have failed to map large swathes of their sewage networks – showing a lack of interest in really tackling the issue. 

Collaborative research

I’m volunteering alongside Surfers Against Sewage and other environmental groups in Hastings in order to better understand the context around the campaign to reduce sewage pollution at a local level – in particular I want to get a sense of how power dynamics, conflicting imaginaries and competing narratives are impacting on the effectiveness of the clean-up campaign in Hastings. I hope to identify key issues and explore ways in which these might be resolved. This is the dissertation topic for my masters degree in Digital Anthropology at UCL. 

I’m going to Hastings because London is over-familiar to me. Ethnographic research is the foundation of all anthropology and I learned on my practical project last year that it’s good to have a well-defined and distinct fieldsite. Once I’m down in Hastings I’m anticipating that everything will be material for my dissertation, everything can relate back to the issue of raw sewage pollution because that’s my starting point. It’s certainly something I imagine everyone will have an opinion on. Raw sewage in the sea and flooding in the town centre are becoming a grisly fact of life.

Why me, why now?

It’s true that I’ve never shown much interest in surfing, or water sports in general. I like the idea of paddle-boarding one day – it looks nice and chilled. But, let’s face it, my balance is terrible. I hate being in cold water. I’m not competitive (at least not sports-wise). I was always chosen last for the netball/ hockey team at school. I’m short-sighted as a mole.

But I do like a bit of beach. I’m happiest on the beach in the sun with a good book. Or sitting in a beach cafe with my laptop, writing, day-dreaming and looking out to sea. And how can you bloomin’ well enjoy the beach when raw sewage has been dragged all over it?! Apparently a good paddle-out needs land people and sea people to work well. I’m glad I can do my bit from the shoreline.

I joined Surfers Against Sewage, because they are “more than surfers, more than sewage”. It really doesn’t matter where you take a stand or make your protest. Waving a banner on the beach is as good as waving one out at sea. We’re all affected by polluted waters. You don’t need to be a surfer to know that 3.6 million hours’ worth of raw sewage “spills” isn’t good!

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