Picture a family-focused fun-filled boating event along the River Wey on a summer’s afternoon, combining duck racing, raft building and kayaking.

The Guildford Lions’ Big River Race is just that, a community event raising funds for local good causes, and returned last Saturday.

However, there to join the families cheering on the rubber duckies, rafts and kayakers were members of the Extinction Rebellion (XR) Waverley & Borders group.

The XR rebels say they were there to lay bare the truth about the state of our rivers – some sitting on toilets, reading mocked-up newspapers to highlight the continued discharge of raw sewage into our rivers and waterways.

An ITV camera crew was there to capture the scene for a documentary to be screened later this year, and the public were invited to take action to call for clean rivers and put pressure via MPs on the water companies to reduce pollution and to pay for the clean-up rather than making their customers pay.  

The protest was staged in good humour, and the Rebel Rhythms samba band even encouraged more effort from some of the passing rafts, such as the Zero Carbon Guildford craft as it paddled past.

The local XR branch says many participants in such community riverside events may not be aware of the health hazards posed by the untreated sewage discharged regularly by Thames Water into the River Wey, which starts life as a chalk stream – one of only 300 in the world, 220 of which are in the UK.

With an average of 825 sewage discharges per day, the recreational use of national waterways by families, anglers, rowers, paddleboarders, swimmers, dog-walkers and boaters puts the public at risk of eye, ear, skin, throat infections, gastro-enteritis, E.coli, hepatitis and more, says XR.

Raw sewage contains bacteria, antibiotics, pathogens, viruses and a whole host of other unmentionables.

England’s privatised water companies have paid out dividends to shareholders of £2 billion a year on average since being given the utility debt-free more than 30 years ago. 

They now intend to pass the £10bn bill for investment, which XR says should have been carried out years ago, on to customers.

Organic farm worker and XR rebel Danielle McHallam, 34, said: “I am here to highlight Thames Water’s complete lack of care and continued monetisation of the natural world. 

“We are the only country on Earth that has a fully privatised water sector. Privatisation has meant the priority of water companies is profit, meaning they have been protecting their shareholders’ interests instead of the ecosystems that rely on healthy rivers, and all of this is at the expense of bill payers; you and I.”

Jenny Condit, a retired banker, 73, from Haslemere, said:  “For more than 30 years Thames Water has paid the interest due to its creditors and dividends to shareholders and its holding company while defiling the rivers in our region. 

“Now its creditors are worried about getting paid and the company is front-page news.

“Our waterways and rivers have been abused by these companies for too long.  

“It’s time they are brought back into public ownership where all money made can be invested in upgrading infrastructure and repairing the damage done to our beautiful waterways.”

Environmental artist Angela Shaw, 69, who recently exhibited her latest artwork at Frensham’s phonebox Red Cube Gallery,  said: “The Dirty Water Campaign has been a major player in bringing to public attention the dramatic decline in the health of our rivers, highlighting the inaction by MPs, and revealing the actions of the water companies.

“Visual performances are a powerful way to get the message across.”

Find out more about the Dirty Water Campaign here or email XR Waverley & Borders at [email protected]