A project to make the River Thames drinkable

Image above: Maartin Van Der Schaaf and Li An Phoa testing water quality on the banks of the River Thames

Dutch couple hoping to unify River Thames groups into action 

Dutch couple Li An Phoa and Maarten Van Der Schaaf are campaigning to make our rivers drinkable again. The co-founders of the ambitious environmental initiative have set their sights on the River Thames and are travelling the length of the Thames Path meeting environmental groups and anyone who would like to get involved along the way.

Li An’s journey started with a chance encounter with a pristine Canadian river in 2005, the Rupert, leading to a decade-long commitment to a vision of drinkable rivers worldwide.

Li An’s experience canoeing the Rupert, where she could drink from it for weeks without any issues (in fact she says she experienced vitalising effects such as thicker hair and better eyesight) left a lasting impression.

She discovered the river was a source of clean, potable water, but when she returned a few years later, she found it had been polluted. Due to industrial developments, the once-drinkable river had become contaminated, causing illness among the local population and harm to aquatic life.

This transformation shook Li An, and she decided to dedicate her life to restoring and protecting rivers. Over the years, she observed the decline in nature’s health, as indicated by various reports, and resolved to make “drinkable rivers” a global reality.

She and her partner’s mission is not just about restoring the Thames in the UK to drinkable conditions; it is about uniting communities and organisations to create a collective vision for cleaner rivers worldwide.

Maarten and Li An have been actively engaging with local groups, national organisations, and passionate local people who share their goal. Together, they have formed a network in London known as the “Thames River Family” to work towards this common objective, hoping to move beyond smaller and fragmented campaigns.

On Friday (6 October), on their journey along the Thames Path, the couple reached London and were hosted by one of Chiswick’s popular river users, Active 360, who organise paddleboarding from their base at Kew Bridge, where they gave a talk on drinkable rivers.

Maarten and Li An sample water quality and collate data along the banks of rivers where they meet with people interested in protecting and generally treating rivers better.

Image above: Maartin Van Der Schaaf and Li An Phoa testing water quality on the banks of the River Thames

A holistic approach

Speaking to The Chiswick Calendar, Maarten described their approach as ‘holistic’, involving extensive hour-long testing of rivers for 28 various parameters including nitrate levels, temperature, plastic pollution, eColi, and even the presence of indicator species like damselflies. They’ve developed a data platform where anyone can register and contribute to the ongoing monitoring efforts.

This collaborative approach, they hope, will encourage individuals, swimmers, kayakers, and policymakers to join hands in making the Thames and other rivers healthier.

“We suggest a drinkable river as a common compass, a common direction to work towards,” Maarten said, “Instead of all these fragmented campaigns that there are – a lot of great work has been done – but we don’t want to get stuck into the discussions like Thames Water should do this or the famers should do this.

“We need to get together and say that a drinkable Thames is something we all want, all of us and what steps can we take to achieve that.”

“…We’ve been reaching out to a lot of these local groups or national groups or Thames-related groups to work together with them. We see basically every morning at 9:00 a.m… people show up from all the nooks and crannies people come and work with us for a bit; we do citizen science together.

“Also local councillors join us on the walk. It’s very exciting actually… we try to go beyond the anger and try to say ‘okay what can we do’ because below the anger is the care and the love we have for the river.”

While Maarten and Li An are from the Netherlands, they have become honorary neighbours of the Thames, thanks to the hospitality of local people who have hosted them along their journey which Maarten said reflects the spirit of collaboration needed to help clean up the Thames.

Images above: Maartin and Li An arriving along the towpath

What can be done?

Maarten admit the list of obstacles, or “to-do’s” as he describes them, are “basically endless”. But despite this, he and Li An are hopeful they can inspire various “action communities” to emerge out of river users, local councillors and those that care about the river. These communities would change the way we think about the river and, in theory, encourage policies which seek to improve the Thames’ drinkability.

But what can be done to improve the Thames’ health and make it more drinkable?

One notable partnership Maarten and Li An have established is with a the “Thames Landscapes Strategy”, which focuses on rewilding riverbanks.

“This is very interesting, I think. They take a 100-year view, and they started in 1994, one of their interventions that they do is a rewilding of the landscape and river banks especially. In London, a lot of the banks are concrete banks right? But if you have green banks, with normal plants on the banks and there is an exchange between the water and the banks which is natural then you get this sort of self-cleaning effect.”

Maarten added that from a wider perspective, the pesticides used in farming should be addressed, as much of this runoff ends in the Thames, as do pharmaceutical residues from medicine urinated out by the population, highlighting the need for collective responsibility.

Despite the daunting challenges ahead, Maarten and Li An remain committed to their mission. They have seen a significant number of participants and supporters, with hundreds of people joining their walks and research efforts. The initiative has spread across various locations, showing there is widespread concern for river health.

Their message is clear: a drinkable river is not a distant dream, but a vision that can be realised through unity and a shared sense of responsibility. As they continue their journey, they hope to inspire even more people to join their cause and make rivers drinkable again, one step at a time.

For more information on how to get involved with making the River Thames drinkable, collecting data or becoming a partner with Maarten and Li An, see their website drinkablerivers.org

You can buy Maarten and Li An’s recently released book on Drinkable Rivers here: drinkablerivers.org/drinkable-rivers-book

Li An Phoa speaking at TED about Care for Drinkable Rivers