sulabh swatchh bharat

Tuesday, 25-June-2019

River Thames and The Great Stink

There was a time when the Thames was like a drain. There lies a lesson for us to clean our polluted rivers, the way it was cleaned up and restored to its present pristine state.

Nearly 160 years ago, the stench from the river Thames in London was so unbearable, the British Parliament had to be shut down as the MPs could not manage to do any work.  It is said that hundreds of people left London unable to bear the stink.  It was the period of the “The Great Stink”.

But, it triggered a revolutionary change in the country. The river, used as the city’s drain and chemical dump for centuries, had to be saved. The solution was an underground sewage system that helped resolved some of the pollution.  But it wasn’t until after 1878, when a ship full of people died after drinking water from the Thames, that the gravity of the situation helped raise awareness.


Photo caption: A sunset view of River Thames

 In the intervening years, matters improved slightly but suffered a setback after the end of World War II, when German bombing destroyed London’s sewer system and the government lacked the money to carry out the necessary repairs. The Thames was declared dead in 1957 by the Natural History Museum as it became a drain for every kind of waste and refuse discharged from the city.  The river stank to high heaven as devoid of oxygen, plant and animal in the river life died.  This period was referred to in the media as the return of “The Great Stink”.

 But by the 1960s, it was clear that the Thames had to be revived.  Running through the heart of the country over 246 km, it is the longest river in all of England.  On the banks of the river lie two of the UK’s most famous and therefore recognizable landmarks: The British parliament and London eye. Also the river is the venue for iconic boat race between Cambridge and Oxford Universities, which is a major tourist attraction. The government and civil society worked together. 

All the factories dumping industrial waste into the river were banned and the sewage systems were reconstructed. Sewage treatment is the process of removing contaminants from wastewater which was made mandatory and the order were strictly implemented around cities  and towns that no water must be discharged into the river without being treated.

The Thames was declared world’s cleanest rivers in 2012 and a tourist attraction, having over 125 species of fish and harbor seals while whales and dolphins too have been spotted occasionally.  Thames has never been cleaner in the last 400 years. Food for thought for us in India.