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‘Stop the Poonami’ say Cambridge river activists for Sewage Saturday protest on the Cam



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‘Stop the Poonami’ was the message on the river Cam today as Cambridge climate action group Little Blue Dot took to the water to protest the persistent and ongoing dumping of raw sewage into the water.

Dan Jones came from Wales to represent One Global Ocean
Dan Jones came from Wales to represent One Global Ocean

Several emoji-style piles, the biggest of which were more than one metre high, bobbed down the river near Jesus Green as tourists and locals looked on in a mix of shock and amusement. Placards included ‘Fish not faeces’ and ‘Boaters against floaters’.

Dubbed Sewage Saturday, the action drew attention to water companies’ increasing practice of pumping untreated human waste into our waterways. According to official records, Anglian Water discharged raw sewage into the Cam Valley chalk streams 156 times in 2020, mostly at Melbourn and Haslingfied. In England as whole, the amount of sewage dumped into rivers and coastal waters rose by more than one third in the same year.

Flotilla gathers prior to heading from Jesus Green to Magdalene Bridge. Picture: Mike Scialom
Flotilla gathers prior to heading from Jesus Green to Magdalene Bridge. Picture: Mike Scialom

“The dumping of sewage locally is particularly destructive because it is polluting what should be crystal-clear chalk streams,” said Claire Preston, of Little Blue Dot. “There are only 200 chalk streams in the world, and 85 per cent of them are in the UK. That makes us custodians of a very rare eco-system. Add to that the risks of climate crisis, and it’s clear that the water companies and Environment Agency are failing us.”

Earlier this year the Cambridge Independent reported that the Cambridge Waste Water Treatment Plant – which Anglian Water is controversially planning to relocate to Honey Hill – has been releasing more treated sewage effluent into the River Cam than its permit allows since 2015, according to the Environment Agency.

Climate activists Little Blue Dot – which started in March 2019 – led the stunt to raise awareness of river pollution and our dysfunctional relationship with nature as a whole.

Al Dixon, another member of the group, said: “We are here to highlight criminal destruction happening in broad daylight. Water companies are pouring untreated effluent and sewage into the river because they’ve realised they can get away with it. They are destroying our rivers and, if challenged, gaslight the people with big claims of investment when, the reality is, they are using waterways and rivers as cheap way to dump effluent and sewage instead of investing in costly upgrades to sewage treatment plants.

‘Stop the Poonami’ flotilla makes its way down the river Cam. Picture: Mike Scialom
‘Stop the Poonami’ flotilla makes its way down the river Cam. Picture: Mike Scialom

“It’s clear the water companies’ top priorities are boardroom pay and profits, leaving the people with polluted, poisoned and dying rivers and chalk streams. Destroying the environment shouldn’t be rewarded with bumper pay packets and dividends. Our priority must be keeping our waterways clean and abundant with aquatic life.”

Every single river in England is polluted beyond legal limits, making it one of the worst affected countries in Europe. With the UK needing to show environmental leadership in the year it hosts the COP26 climate conference, the state of our rivers and coastal waters is likely to become an increasing source of embarrassment for the government.

Little Blue Dot flotilla passing the punts near Magdalene Bridge. Picture: Mike Scialom
Little Blue Dot flotilla passing the punts near Magdalene Bridge. Picture: Mike Scialom

One of the major reasons for the degradation is “the severe budget cuts to government agencies tasked with water quality and protection of the natural environment”, said a Little Blue Dot spokesperson. Over the last decade, government funding for the Environment Agency has fallen by over 70 per cent, downgrading environmental checks and making them less likely to be carried out effectively.

In June a declaration of rights ceremony for the river Cam took place. In August Terry Macalister, of Friends of the Cam, said that an unsustainable growth agenda risks decimating the chalk streams and the entire aquifer network in the region.

This month, Cambridge City Council and South Cambridgeshire District Council published details of nearly 49,000 new homes planned in Greater Cambridge, which they intend to guide development in the region to 2041.

A warning about sewage being discharged into the river Cam. Picture: Mike Scialom
A warning about sewage being discharged into the river Cam. Picture: Mike Scialom

“The sewage in our rivers is a symptom of a much bigger problem – our attitude to the natural environment as a whole,” concluded Claire. “We live is a system that says it’s OK to put excrement into rivers, to fill the soil with our rubbish, the seas with plastic and the atmosphere with carbon dioxide.

“But we’ve reached breaking point – we must change or face the collapse of our eco-system.”

Francesca, Rachel and John by the river Cam
Francesca, Rachel and John by the river Cam

Anglian Water was approached for comment.

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