Bringing London’s Waterways to Life

I spent a fascinating and enjoyable Saturday near Wembley recently learning about the challenges facing London’s waterways, courtesy of Molly, of Thames 21, a registered charity. Like me, she’s a displaced New Yorker, though the time she’s spent in the (dis)United Kingdom is rather less than mine.

“Bringing London’s Waterways to Life” is Thames 21’s strap line and by waterway, they mean struggling Father Thames, his tributaries and the canal system within the catchment area (American: “watershed”).

One of the Challenges

I learned a lot. For example, during storms, the drainage system in Central London allows surface runoff from rainwater and sewage to mix, before discarding the end product directly into the river. Yuck. Further afield, the tunnel system is dual, keeping the two apart. A “super sewer” is currently under construction that should ease this problem.

Why this is so important

I already knew about the countless tyres (ironically, an ideal home for eels), supermarket trolleys (a safe haven for young fish), motorbikes, etc. that have been thrown in. But these are just the tip of the rubbish iceberg. How long does it take for human waste products to biodegrade?

  • Orange peel: 6 months (The New York Times)
  • Cigarette butt: up to 50 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic food container: 50-80 years (Penn State University)
  • Aluminium can: 80-200 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Plastic soda bottle: 450 years (Penn State University)
  • Monofilament fishing line: 600 years ((Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Glass bottle: 1,000,000 years (Pocket Guide to Marine Debris, The Ocean Conservancy, 2004)
  • Styrofoam: never (Penn State University)

Getting prepared

Thames21 trains volunteers who then lead clean ups. We went through the Health and Safety guidelines and there’s plenty to think about. Guns and knives are found in the waterways regularly. Their live hand grenade tally is one. We didn’t discuss WW2 bombs but there must be hundreds—perhaps thousands—of them buried deep in the gloopy mud.

Other hazards included Weil’s disease (or leptospirosis). It’s a potentially fatal bacterium that enters the environment via the urine of rodents (especially rats). It can infect the victim via cuts or if contact is made with the mucous membranes. Consequently thick rubber gloves, “picking tools” and steel soled boots and waders are mandatory. If you get flu-like symptoms within several weeks of sharing a location with rodents, tell your doctor!

Then there’s Giant Hog Weed. A beast of a plant which should be left well alone on account of the bristly micro-hairs on its surface and highly photo-sensitive liquid within. If micro-hairs touch your skin, think acid. Think scarring. Think photo-sensitivity (a blistering of the skin triggered by sunlight, not a preoccupation with your Facebook profile pic). These symptoms can persist for months or years. Sounds off-putting? I’d say it’s better to be forewarned.

Progress

Clean-ups are organised locally and the charity is making a difference as streams are cleared, meadows sowed with wild flowers and stretches returned to something approaching pristine condition. Exercise is taken, friendships made and an occasional unplanned swim enjoyed. But it’s a constant struggle – and an important battle to be won!

And here, courtesy of the BBC, is a beautiful video documenting the return of kingfishers to one stretch of our waterways – an stunning illustration of why all this effort is so worthwhile.

I look forward to leading a clean-up soon!

***

Thames21’s vision is to put healthy rivers back at the heart of community life, and they’re taking a four-pronged approach to get there. Through their education programme, they are empowering people and their environmental enhancement work is transforming rivers; meanwhile their pioneering research and advocacy work are paving the way for sustainable change and all of this is achieved with the direct engagement and support from a wide network of dedicated volunteers. www.thames21.org.uk

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