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Sick of sewage, Britons protest at water companies' pollution

BRIGHTON, England (Reuters) - Thousands of Britons took to the sea and rivers on Saturday to demand an end to sewage pollution by water companies, highlighting a topic that is likely to be an issue at the next general election.

A national "paddle-out" at 12 locations across the United Kingdom, including Brighton in the south, Windermere in the Lake District, Plymouth in the south west and Edinburgh in Scotland, was organised by campaign groups Surfers Against Sewage and Ocean Activists.

About 200 paddleboarders protested off the coast of the southern English resort of Brighton.

To the beat of a drumming band and waving placards, the protestors called on Britain’s water companies to do more to prevent sewage discharges.

"We are sick of this sewage and they need to take action," Izzy Ross, Surfers Against Sewage's campaign manager told Reuters.

"We need to see an end to sewage discharges into bathing waters by 2030, and we need to see a 90% reduction in sewage discharges across the country," she said.

The protest was held as water companies face the biggest wave of public criticism over the dumping of raw sewage and the poor quality of rivers and beaches since the industry was privatised by the then Conservative government in 1989.

Public anger has been fuelled by the payment of dividends to investors and large salaries and bonuses to water industry executives.

The release of sewage into waterways is only supposed to happen during exceptional rainfall to stop it backing up into homes.

However, in 2022, water companies in England alone released raw sewage into rivers and the sea 301,091 times, an average of 825 times a day, according to data from the Environment Agency.

Campaigners say water companies are discharging much more often than they should, including when there has been no rain.

The situation has been blamed on decades of underinvestment in infrastructure.

On Thursday, Water UK, the trade body representing the UK water industry, apologised, said the public was right to be upset, and said more should have been done to address the issue of spillages sooner.

It said the industry would invest 10 billion pounds ($12.6 billion) in "the biggest modernisation of sewers since the Victorian era" to cut waste outflows.

But its pledge was dismissed by campaigners, who said it still had to be signed off by regulator Ofwat, while the investment would ultimately be paid for by customers.

Campaigners also highlighted that the sum was significantly less than the 56 billion pounds of investment the government has said is needed to end the routine release of sewage into waterways.

($1 = 0.7923 pounds)

(Reporting Yann Tessier, writing by James Davey,; editing by Louise Heavens)