January 1928 was the last time central London was significantly flooded. In those pre-Thames Barrier days, the river burst its banks, the Houses of Parliament and Tower of London were deluged, and 14 Londoners perished. Surely with today's foresight and technology, a similar tragedy couldn't unfold again?
Is London likely to flood?
The truth is, London might be on the verge of another great flood. The Thames Barrier is nearing its best before date and will require significant work. In 2018, Christian Aid reported that London — among other major world cities — is sinking.
Now, a report from Green Party London Assembly Member Caroline Russell, brings the reality of a submerged capital to gut-wrenching vividness. Should global temperature increase by 1.5 degrees (a probability, rather than possibility), says the report, half of the underground stations in central London — Northern and Central lines in particular — face a significant risk of flooding. One in five London schools could be swamped, along with hospitals and countless homes. London, concludes the report, is the most vulnerable city in western Europe to floods.
What can be done?
The obvious answer to the problem, says Russell, is to increase environmental responsibility. She has already called on the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, to expedite and update his environment strategy.
Another, more immediate, possibility is the 'rewilding' of London's rivers. 600km of London's waterway network is culverted into hard, concrete channels. These include well-known 'hidden' rivers such as the Fleet and Tyburn, and many lesser-knowns, like the Falconbrook, which runs beneath Balham, Tooting and Battersea. Rewilding is the art of uncovering these buried rivers; removing the manmade channels (culverts), and allowing rivers to meander more naturally, connecting up with local wetlands. When flash floods occur, rather than being expedited, water flow is slowed down.
More than 30km of waterway in London has already been rewilded, but David Webb, chair of the London Rivers Restoration Group (LRRG), says that progress has slowed. He claims that at least 90km of the waterway network can be rewilded; if so, London could adapt to a myriad of climate and environmental threats coming our way including heatwaves, droughts, poor air quality, and flooding.
Restored rivers with green corridors of trees and plants cut flood risk by soaking up flood water. They help regulate the microclimate and cool areas down during heatwaves; and in an era of species extinction, restored rivers can help species survive severe weather and pollution events.
London Rivers Week — which takes place from 25 May-2 June 2019 — teaches Londoners about the multiple benefits of rewilding their rivers — through films, walks, clean-ups, talks and hunting down secret rivers. Visit the website to find events and get involved.