Societies have evolved and flourished on rivers for centuries. It was in these places that fish could be caught, farms irrigated, and transport for trade was made easy. Some of the world’s greatest cities have formed on rivers. Cairo on the Nile. Paris on the Seine. London on the Thames.
The Thames River has gone through many phases as more and more human activity has changed the makeup of the water itself.
Along with the advancement of technology, the Industrial Age brought massive amounts of sewage and pollution into the river. Many believe this caused the outbreak of illnesses, including cholera.
In the mid-1800’s London’s first sewer system was built which helped to improve the health of the Thames and the people of the city. As the population and manufacturing increased, the sewers could not keep up especially after having been damaged during the war. In 1957, the river was deemed biologically dead by the Natural History Museum.
Since then, sewers have been periodically updated and environmental awareness has increased. The river has gradually come back to life with wildlife returning to the Thames. It has become once again an exciting and enjoyable place to be in some areas.
Theo Thomas, the founder of London Waterkeeper, wants to see a more swimmable Thames.
After witnessing the health of many of the rivers in London worsen over the years, he decided to start London Waterkeeper in 2014.
Due to heavy rains and a sewage system struggling to keep up, overflows into the Thames and tributaries are a common occurrence. Because of this, the government was found guilty of not following environmental directives, forcing them to invest 600 million pounds to build five sewage plants in East London where 40% of overflows were happening. This appears to have made a huge difference in the amount of overflows in that area, but actual data is hard to come by.
London Waterkeeper has been fighting the water company, Thames Water, to set up alerts when the sewers are overflowing into the river. They believe community access to this information is important and empowering for the people who live near and use the river. However, the water company is pushing back against transparency and doing the bare minimum in terms of notifying the communities.
Without this information, no one knows if it’s safe to go in or even out on the water. “On a good day, it’s not a dirty river. But that’s not what people think. So, we’re not able to make the most of the opportunities that 600 million pounds worth of investment has brought. The investment is great and we should therefore be making the most of it,” outlines Theo.
When speaking of one of his own experiences swimming in the Thames in Richmond, he says, “it was amazing, you know, really exciting being in a tidal river. There was a real buzz, everyone’s really enlivened by it… it is quite transcendent to do that. And it was also that kind of communal experience as well. So it felt amazing doing it with lots of other people.”
One of open water swimming’s most prestigious marathon swims, the award-winning Thames Marathon, has partnered with SwimTayka to raise funds providing underprivileged children around the world the opportunity to learn survival swimming skills and water stewardship education.
Due to the marathon being held during the summer (August 15) when the weather is drier and west outside of the city (Henley on Thames), Theo is certain that the water quality won’t be an issue the day of the event.
Speaking about the significance of holding the marathon in the Thames River, Theo comments, “The fact that you have thousands of people getting in the river is a great message to send to people that it is possible, this can be done. We should be in the river, not sewage. It’s a way of demonstrating that it’s totally possible.”
March 14, 2021 is International Day of Action for Rivers, a day where people around the world stand up for rights to access clean and flowing water. It’s also a day to take a stand that everyone should have a say in the decisions that affect their water and lives.
Sewage systems, owned and operated by the water company, have always played an important role in the community. Those living near the rivers in London have the power to hold the water company to account. By practicing accessible and collaborative advocacy as neighbors, concerned citizens can take action today for the health of the Thames River.
Join London Waterkeeper in demanding the Thames Water company provides real-time alerts for sewer overflows. Access to this information is powerful in so many ways for the health and enjoyment of the people, the river, wildlife, and the city of London itself.