The Thames Tunnel – a practical environmental solution or an unjust golden legacy?

London is internationally recognised as a Global City, renowned for its economic power and political influence. However, after a short boat ride down the river Thames, the sophisticated prowess of the city is often all but lost. You may in fact be excused from believing you have been transported to Victorian England as the potent stench of raw sewerage spills into your nostrils and discarded toilet paper meanders beneath your feet. Surely this foul scene is inappropriate for the 21st Century capital of England?

One of the 37 vales discharging raw sewerage into the Thames

39million tonnes of raw sewerage overflows into the Thames each year proving detrimental not only to the river’s aesthetics but also to its chemistry. When more than 2mm of rain falls on London, the sewerage system begins to overflow into the Thames through 37 emergency release valves. Originally built by Joseph Bazalgette during the Victorian era, London’s sewerage system was intended to cater for a population of 4millon rather than today’s 7-8 million. Unfortunately, although the city’s population has undergone a drastic transformation, the sewerage system at its heart has remained largely unaltered. Therefore, although the Thames has the potential to be a successful fish breeding ground, each sewerage overflow incident kills thousands of fish due to toxic pollution and a subsequent depletion of oxygen in the river.

However, Thames Water has constructed a large-scale hard engineering solution to tackle the sewerage overflow spilling into the Thames each week. The ‘London Tideway Improvements Programme’ incorporates three phases:

  1. Construction of the ‘Lee Tunnel’, capturing 16million tonnes of sewerage each year
  2. An increase in efficiency and capacity of numerous sewerage treatment works
  3. A controversial construction of the 20mile ‘Thames Tunnel ’ to tackle the 34 most polluting overflows creating a “cleaner and healthier river Thames” (Roberts, 2012).

The proposed route of the Thames Tunnel

With numerous environmental groups backing the scheme we may assume this is the perfect project- surely everyone wants a sparkling Thames? However, the second phase of public consultations which ended last week debated whether the tunnel is worth the £4.1 billion and years of disruption for those living near the proposed construction sites. During BBC Radio 4’s‘Costing the Earth’, Professor Roberts interviews local residents who run the “Save Your Riverside” campaign and claim a 7 year-long construction site outside their homes prevents them from selling their houses, reduces their value and poses a threat to local businesses. This decrease in the local economy is combined with a proposed increase of £70-80 water bills to ironically fund the tunnel construction which has the potential to cause so much upset.

Riverside Primary School present their petition

These economic issues are coupled with numerous social injustices such as 24 hour incessant noise pollution, some of which falls feet in front of homes. One resident raises concern for the local primary school asking “what will this do to our local children?” (Roberts, 2012) as the site demands 90lorries per day travelling in front of the building. As a result, Riverside Primary School presented a petition against the use of land near their building as a drive site for the Tunnel,receiving 2,000 signatures on the grounds of safety and disruption to learning.

But is this 20 mile super sewer the only viable solution? Many believe there are more environmentally friendly and socially just solutions that could be implemented but have been dismissed by the government. Does a 20 mile concrete tunnel not suggest a worryingly 19th Century approach to environmental issues whereby the government’s love for a big and beautiful legacy surpasses the possibility of a more eco-friendly solution? Such a large-scale solution is comparable to the Three Gorges Dam project, China whereby the government masks a human induced environmental issue with a large-scale hard engineering project. Here, the dam is not only an environmental solution, but a legacy in its own right by acting as a continuous symbolism of presidential power and influence regardless of its social impact.

If there is one thing all players can agree on, everyone wants a cleaner Thames. However, we must consider whether the proposed vast social and economic costs of the tunnel really worth it. It is imperative therefore to contemplate not only alternative, eco-friendly solutions for the Thames, but also why these possible solutions being ignored.


BBC News,(2011)Thames Tunnel Plan ‘Should be Reviewed’, Available: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Roberts, A. (2012) The Thames Tunnel, ‘Costing the Earth’, BBC Radio 4, Last Broadcast Wed 22 Feb 2012 21:00

Tilt, B. et al. (2008) Social impacts of large dam projects: A comparison of international case studies and implications for best practice, Journal of Environmental Management

Thames Water (2012), Thames Tunnel Project, Available At: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Photograph Sources:

Sewerage Vale: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Thames Tunnel Route: Last Accessed 28/02/2012

Riverside Primary School Petition: Last Accessed 28/02/2012


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