Britons are fighting a losing battle to keep their iconic river clean amidst ineffective infrastructure and environmental challenges. Elizabeth Pearson reports.

Pollution continually threatens the iconic river

The iconic river has become a dumping ground for junk and sewage waste. Image: UK Environmental Agency.

Beneath the turbid surface of the Thames lurks a “national scandal”, according to the Chairman of London’s Consumer Council for Water.

Oblivious to this, 30 Greenwich teenagers are up to their knees in mud on an icy Winter morning, fishing rubbish out London’s famous river. Siblings Kippa and Jess Brand have braved the plummeting mercury to wade into the muck exposed by the low lapping tide at Bell Water Gate. This is one of a series of community events run by the environment charity Thames 21 in a bid to remove superficial pollution from the riverbank.

“We’ve found heaps and heaps of trolleys and tyres,” 17-year-old Jess exclaims enthusiastically as she slips out of a pair of grimy wellies. “You wouldn’t believe how heavy everything was- so much heavier than it looked.”

“You burn extra calories because it’s for charity,” event coordinator Abigail Kelly shouts out across her shoulder, hefting spades and shovels from the pebbly rind of riverbed into a nearby truck.

Thames 21 has been campaigning for 16 years to clean up the shores of the river. Within the space of 90 minutes, these teenagers have managed to dig one shopping trolley, twenty abandoned roads cones, ten tyres and a stack of miscellaneous debris out of the quagmire.

“People just throw rubbish into the Thames. We find hoovers and irons and random things- I end up having a treasure chest on desk at work,” Ms Kelly said.

“Last week, we found a grenade which still had the pin in it so we had to call the police. We find lots of guns and knives and second world war shells rolling around.”

But apathy toward the health of the Thames is hard for these volunteers to swallow.

“People can’t think that they get to dump their stuff in the river, like some sort of tip,” Kippa said. “This river is part of our city and we have to look after it. If fools keep this up, there will be nothing left of it.”

And these students are only scratching the surface of the problem.

Something more sinister lurks upstream.

More than 32 million cubic metres of untreated waste overflows from London’s sewers into the Thames every year- enough to fill the 02 arena 15 times, the Environment Agency estimates.

The city relies upon a Victorian drainage system that collects both sewage and water runoff. During heavy rainfall, the increased water volume drives this system to full capacity. Excess waste is discharged straight into the Thames at 57 different outlets.

“The state of the Thames currently is not acceptable,” said the Chairman of the Consumer Council for Water London Committee, David Bland. “It is a national scandal that this river is in this condition and the eco standard must be raised very much far above where it is now.”

Anglers, canoeists and rowers have consistently reported raw sewage floating on the river’s surface over the last two years. Recreational users are often forced to avoid certain sections of the Thames during heavy rain because of the sludge generated.

But the Thames is naturally turbid so these contaminants are, more often than not, invisible in the swirling, clouded depths.

This biological waste is not just aesthetically displeasing, it poses significant health risks.

A study by the London Port Health and Environment Services Committee in 2007 found that “there is evidence of an elevated risk to the health of recreational users of the upper river for two to four days following combined sewer overflow discharges of raw sewage”.

Illnesses including gastrointestinal bugs can result from immersion in or ingestion of contaminated water, though the Environment Agency admits it’s difficult to gauge the exact number of people directly affected.

The report concluded that there was “evidence that background concentrations of microbiological organisms exceed the World Health Organisation recommended levels for recreational use at Kew Barnes and Putney”.

These overflows are also in breach of the European Union’s Waste Water Directive, which stipulates that sewage must be treated before it is discharged.

The EU’s environment watchdog launched legal action against the British government in October 2009, describing the sewage overflows as “too frequent and in excessive quantities”.

Ironically, the river was once a great success story for England.

The quality of London’s freshwater supply had been vastly improving since 1990, according to the Environment Agency. But recent levels are declining once more.

A population explosion is continuing to put pressure on the city’s outdated drains.

The nation’s largest water company Thames Water admits the infrastructure is struggling to keep up.

“Despite vast improvements to the river, there remains a big problem- London’s sewage system is Victorian. It was built in the 1850s and 60s by Sir Joseph Bazalgette following the Big Stink when Parliament had to reconvene at Oxford because the stench from the Thames, then an open sewer and biologically dead, simply overwhelmed the Palace of Westminster,” Senior Press Officer Simon Evans explained.

“Bazalgette’s combined human waste and surface water run-off system fed into two big interceptor sewers, one north of the river and the other to the south, which each fed to Beckton and Crossness respectively before pumping the effluent out to sea with the prevailing tide. The upshot was a cleaner Thames and a far healthier, less stinky Thames.”

The system features 57 combined sewer overflows designed to spill into the tideway section of the river when severe rainfall drove the pipes beyond full capacity.

Last century, this was a “once in a blue moon” occurrence, Mr Evans said.

Now, it’s a different story.

“Since then, London’s population has more than doubled, much of the city has been concreted over and climate change is bringing less frequent but heavier downpours – all putting huge strain on our 150-year-old drains.”

“Untreated sewage is ending up in the river on an increasingly frequent basis, not only from the sewer system but also from the five major sewage works along the tidal Thames, which struggle to cope with today’s heavy flows. And this can’t be right,” Mr Evans said.

As little as 2mm of rain is enough to trigger an overflow. This is now happening, on average, at least once a week.

Britain’s Environment Agency has floated a £2.2 billion super-sewer as the most viable solution. Plans are currently on the table to build two new pipelines beneath the river and transport excess waste away from the city. But Britain’s water authorities remain divided over the scheme dubbed the “Thames Tideways Tunnels”.

And as long as the government hesitates, budding environmentalists like Jess and Kippa Brand are fighting a losing battle to keep this primary waterway clean.

Though pulling rusty shopping trolleys out of the river won’t change the sewage issue, the siblings are determined to do what they can to help.

“Like anywhere else, the Thames has its own ecosystem- it’s 215 miles long, runs through urban and rural environments, contains both fresh and salt water, and is home for many species of birds and fish,” Jess said.

“If we pollute it here, then the consequences will be felt downstream as well- it’s our responsibility to look after the river as much as anywhere else, because it’s not like we’re the only ones using it.”

Elizabeth Pearson is a UTS Geji reporter on exchange in London. For more stories on the River Thames, visit Elizabeth’s blog.