London Waterkeeper

Defending rivers. Challenging polluters.


Rivers across London are being polluted by more than 1,000 dirty drains. The system designed to stop the problem can’t cope and is failing to protect them. We asked Thames Water, Ofwat and the Environment Agency to boost investigations by 5x in their Business Plan for 2020-25. From the previous 40 outfalls a year to 200.

Unfortunately, the draft plan Thames Water sent to the water regulator Ofwat, in 2018, only proposed a 2.5x increase in efforts. We asked people to back our call for increased action. In the final plan Thames Water says it will target 750 polluting outfalls over the next 5 years. That’s not enough, so we will see how much impact they have on the damage being done to rivers. For too long the authorities have set low targets and our environment has suffered.

Sewage pollution in the Wealdstone Brook in Woodcock Park, Brent
Part of the Wealdstone Brook in Woodcock Park, Brent

The authorities charged with protecting our rivers need to recognise the system is over-capacity. A problem more suited to Victorian times is plaguing London in the 21st Century.

Thousands of homes have connected washing machines, showers and toilets to drainpipes. This turns rivers into sewers (only rainwater should go down drainpipes). In addition, blockages caused by wet wipes and cooking oil cause sewers to overflow into drains that lead to rivers. Then there are failures in sewerage infrastructure that cause river pollution. Industrial estates are polluting rivers via surface water drains as well. Our roads add a toxic mix every time it rains too.

All of this puts our health at risk. London Waterkeeper has taken water samples in public parks and found worrying levels of e-coli bacteria. This shows sewage is in rivers that anyone could come into contact with.

The truth is the efforts being made to protect our rivers are inadequate. We need the Environment Agency and water regulator Ofwat to fully recognise the scale of the contamination.

This Zoological Society of London report makes it clear how bad the problem is. Volunteers walked along rivers to locate polluting outfalls and determine the extent of the problem. Based on that research ZSL says there are more than 1,000 outfalls that are damaging rivers in London. Increasing the number of drains that are cleaned up to 750 over 5 years isn’t enough. It’s not just an issue across London of course, but the whole Thames region.

There’s also the fact many drains don’t remain sewage-free for long enough. New sources of pollution occur faster than old ones can be found and stopped. The national misconnections information campaign has a very low profile, not reaching enough people.

Even though drains are cleaned up they can pollute rivers in London again within months
This drain was polluting the Wealdstone Brook again just over a year after it was declared clean

Our rivers are caught in a vicious circle which sees them perpetually contaminated by effluent. The Wealdstone Brook was declared clean in March 2015. But 14 months later it was polluted again, stinking and coated with sewage fungus.

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