Seahorses, eels and even five species of sharks make their home in the River Thames. It's a thriving ecosystem embedded with rich historical and cultural significance. Stretching across 210 miles, the river cuts through some of the country's oldest and most famed cities - from the Cotswolds into the North Sea.

The Thames has undergone dramatic upheaval and changes over the centuries. More than 160 years ago, the combined stench of human and industrial waste that overflowed into the river in London became so problematic, it set in motion a feat of engineering that The Guardian described as "a wonder of the industrial world" - the construction of a vast, underground sewage network. But age, climate change and loss of green space has strained the system and put the river at risk once again. A century later, parts of the estuary had become so polluted and uninhabitable for wildlife that sections of the river were declared “biologically dead."

woman on boat

“It's been overlooked for a very long time – hundreds of years," says Alison Debney, senior marine and freshwater conservation programme manager at ZSL (Zoological Society of London).

“Basically, we destroyed it. Then we turned our back on it and ignored it. But it's been at the heart of London and population development – it's why London is here."

Fast forward to today, and the recovery has been astonishing, thanks in large part to behind-the-scenes conservation efforts by ZSL and its numerous partners over the past 18 years. The society's partnership with RBC, which began more than three and a half years ago, is one such effort, built on their shared goal of safeguarding the Thames through sustainable water management and mitigating climate change.

A report issued by ZSL in autumn 2021 looks at 17 benchmark indicators that show either stability or improvement, especially when it comes to short-term trends. But much more work remains, particularly as it relates to the long-term health of the river, as climate change-related problems increase and wildlife habitats continue to deteriorate. Seven of the indicators – including plastic pollution and habitat restoration – also have insufficient data when it comes to long-term forecasts, illustrating a critical information gap.

Citizen science

Advancing the quality of water data collected, ensuring it is robust and accurate, is a foundational goal that underpins all the decisions and strategies around protecting and improving this freshwater and coastal asset, Debney says.

In order to achieve this ambitious undertaking with limited resources, ZSL worked with RBC to establish an army of informed volunteers – citizen scientists – to help collect data. Community groups at nine of the 11 Thames tributaries work with professionals to help monitor the health and quality of the river in real-time, to better understand the river's condition and the level of pollution found within it.

“They act as an early warning system that then triggers a response…to go and investigate further," says Debney.

“The community groups become stewards of the river, ensuring a rapid response to the pollution and building a picture of health across the river."

This means developing a central data hub, where information can be easily accessed by environmental regulators and other professionals, and where the community can learn more about the river's importance and see how the data they collect helps round out the picture of the entire ecosystem.

Citizen science extends to other projects as well, such as “Outfall Safaris," an RBC-funded programme that trains volunteer citizen scientists to map and audit the rivers and look at the primary sources of pollution. The programme's pilot success in London has allowed for a major national rollout to other parts of the Thames, along with significant investment in infrastructure.

“[It's] using the power of people out on the rivers to audit it – where it'd be normally ignored – and producing this evidence that can't be disputed," said Debney.

All this information allows ZSL to map and model where the hot spots or biggest pressures will come from as a result of increased water levels and pollution entering the river systems. While ZSL is working with partners to implement solutions to address the threats, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed some of that work.

The #OneLess movement is another collaborative undertaking between ZSL and RBC that illustrates the different ways in which conservation is being tackled. This particular venture aims to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles in London and has so far involved hundreds of RBC volunteers and volunteer hours to collect thousands of bottles.

“We're looking at the source of plastic water bottles flowing into the river and out to the sea. So it's trying to eliminate and reduce marine plastics," says Debney, who has seen a downward trend in water bottles across the estuary, which she hopes can be attributed in part to growing awareness and behaviour change. However, she realises it's also likely a result of fewer people in London due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There's a great individual responsibility and individual role that people can take to help better the environment."

Engaging and collaborating with the public

ZSL's report documenting the scientific research and restoration work being done along the Thames also highlights the mental and physical health benefits of the river – through fresh air and access to nature – and its importance as a landmark for cultural celebrations. In addition, the river delivers many vital services to society, including providing food and water.

This is where technology and innovation can play a role in engaging and connecting the public and visitors: On the banks of the river by One London Bridge, you can “dive" into the Thames to see for yourself the incredible wildlife flourishing beneath the waters, through a unique virtual-reality experience. This was put on pause during the pandemic.

The organisation's “Instant Wild" project has also set up a series of camera traps in the field that take photographs of the thousands of seals who make use of the Thames throughout the year, to better understand how they live and interact with the river. It's an outreach activity as well, involving the public in helping to document and verify the information captured in the photographs. Eventually, ZSL hopes to incorporate the use of artificial intelligence too.

Public engagement and awareness play an important role in ZSL's long-term goals. “One of our major goals with RBC is to figure out how to make the invisible visible? How do we connect the river to the people? Because it's so important and there's so much for people to gain from it," Debney says.

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