London’s drying rivers threaten the city’s drinking water supply


The Thames Water Long Reach sewage treatment works on the banks of the Thames estuary in Dartford, Kent. Millions of litres of raw sewage were dumped into the London river in just two days in 2021

BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images

The UK’s capital is number nine in the list of global cities most likely to run out of drinking water, rivers campaigner Feargal Sharkey said at New Scientist Live on 8 October.

“London is now on a list with the likes of Cape Town, São Paulo, Jakarta [and] Mexico City because of the same lack of investment and the same lack of strategic thinking,” he said. The other cities near the top of the list are Bangalore, Beijing, Cairo, Moscow, Istanbul and Tokyo, the BBC reported in 2018.

Sorting the problem requires a lot of money, but consumers, not the privatised water companies, may be asked to foot the bill. “The [UK] National Infrastructure Commission are estimating simply to keep London and England’s taps running over the next 30 years is going to take another £20 billion… of your money,” said Sharkey.

As well as running dry, the UK’s waterways are in poor shape. Only 14 per cent of England’s rivers are in good ecological health. The rest have been ravaged by sewage, agricultural run-off, over-extraction, modified banks and barriers such as dams. Good ecological health means “a good, healthy ecosystem with a wide, diverse range of plants, insects, bugs, fish, wildlife, birds, beavers, otters and everything else that’s utterly dependent upon the health of those rivers”, said Sharkey. No English rivers are in good chemical health.

Spills of human sewage are a major issue, but hard to keep track of. Monitoring systems record how often sewage overflow pipes are opened and for how long, but not how much actual raw sewage ends up in rivers. Sharkey told the audience that one of only two monitoring stations to record that figure – in Twickenham, London – found that in the space of just two days in 2021, millions of litres of raw sewage were dumped into the Thames.

The poor state of UK rivers is also a legal issue. In 2002, the European Water Framework Directive came into force, compelling member states (including the UK at the time) to make sure that all freshwater bodies were in good ecological health by 2027. Some reports claim current estimates mean that only 6 per cent of England’s rivers will meet the requirement by that deadline. “We’ve basically flushed them down the loo, physically and metaphorically,” said Sharkey.

England’s privatised water industry has been adequately paid to solve these problems, but has chosen to reward shareholders and executives rather than execute their legal obligations to run a clean and safe water system, said Sharkey. Instead, the UK water industry is reportedly planning to ask customers to foot the estimated £96 billion bill to prevent sewage spills and other issues.

Sharkey is especially concerned about chalk streams, which arise from aquifers in chalky rocks. Southern England has 85 per cent of the world’s chalk streams, a unique habitat that is dying, he said. Water companies like to extract water from them because they are very clean. “This is the UK’s Amazonian rainforest, a piece of ecosystem and environment that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world, and we’re utterly destroying every single one,” said Sharkey.

What can be done? “I would encourage you now to get in touch with your local MP,” he said. “Just send them an email. It takes no more than a single sentence simply to say, ‘I am utterly shocked, furious, appalled. I think I have been scammed out of my money. What in god’s name are you, as my local MP, going to do to deal with and bring the water industry back into line?’ ”



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