Thames: The tale that the river told

Fifty years ago, it was biologically dead. In 2010, the Thames is in rude health. It's a transformation with huge implications, says Alice-Azania Jarvis

A A A

Filthy, opaque and stinking of rotten eggs: this was the River Thames of 1957. Declared biologically dead thanks to its soaring pollution levels, Britain's most famous waterway was paying the price for decades of human use – and not for the first time. Since the 18th century, it has been a hotbed of industrial activity; during the "Great Stink" of 1858, the stench of human waste along the riverbanks forced Parliament to drench its curtains in chloride of lime and almost prompted the city's law courts' evacuation to St Albans.

A century and a half later, things look rather different. With 125 different species of fish navigating its curves, 400 invertebrates wallowing in its mud, and a selection of seals, otters and dolphins to be spotted, the Thames has achieved a transformation of staggering proportions. Eighty per cent of the Thames is now judged to have "very good" or "good" water quality, while the past five years have seen almost 400 habitat enhancement projects and more than 40 miles of river restored.

The difference hasn't gone unnoticed. Last week, the International River Symposium announced the Thames as the winner of its International Theiss River Prize, awarding the Environment Agency £218,000 in prize money. The funds will go to the Thames Rivers Restoration Trust, which will in turn divide it between a project to help restore a river in a developing country and local conservation works.

In winning the award, the Thames joins the likes of Lake Simcoe in Canada and Austria's Danube River, both of which have undergone dramatic and high-profile makeovers at the hands of dedicated restoration groups. By comparison, the metamorphosis of the Thames appears a rather more gradual one.

"There hasn't been a single, co-ordinated effort," explains a spokesman for the Environment Agency. "It's much more of a holistic process. At no moment did we suddenly decide to restore the Thames – it has been a process of regulation and remedial work."

Since 1996 the Agency has been in control of the regulating the Thames's waters, setting legislative limits on industrial use and ensuring that they are enforced. "Our role is that of an overseer. Some of the work to improve the Thames has come straight from us, some of it has been locally organised."

Elsewhere it is likely to be a model for emulation. In the rapidly developing economies of Asia, river conservation had – until very recently – fallen by the wayside as industrial growth was given precedence. More that 20 per cent of the China's 200 waterways are filled with water that is unfit for use. In 2006 the Yangtze River was declared "cancerous" with pollution and, two years later, the Han River, a branch of the Yangtze supplying some 200,000 people, turned red thanks to a chemical spill. India faces a similar struggle. The Yamuna River in Delhi is one of Hinduism's seven holy rivers, but despite the 20bn rupees of government efforts to clean its waters, it is estimated to contain 100,000 times the safe limit of faecal waste.

In both countries, efforts to reverse the damage have begun to assume prominence. "There are signs that things are changing," explains David Tickner, head of freshwater development at the World Wildlife Fund. "Certainly we have been working with the Chinese government on new projects." In China, recent years have seen the creation of a Yangtze Forum, bringing together representatives from NGOs and the private sector to discuss ways in which the country's most important river can be salvaged. Meanwhile the Indian government announced plans last year to clean up the 22 km stretch passing through New Delhi with the construction of a new sewage interceptor.

Perhaps the most severe case of river pollution in the world today is the Citarum River in Indonesia. Widely described as the world's dirtiest, it absorbs the untreated waste of more than 2,000 factories, as well as millions of homes, and is estimated to be a health hazard for some 28 million people. The Asian Development Bank is currently investing $500m (£314m) to augment the government's existing $3.5bn plan to clean up the river. Still, progress remains slow; recent pictures continue to show a river bed filled with rubbish, and experts claim any conservation work will have to be accompanied by a broader local education project. Whether or not locals will, like citizens of London, have to wait a full century and a half for improvement remains to be seen.

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appeal
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly finalists Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge
tvLive: Simon Webbe, Caroline Flack, Mark Wright and Frankie Bridge face-off in the final
Sport
Ched Evans in action for Sheffield United in 2012
footballRonnie Moore says 'he's served his time and the boy wants to play football'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture