Conservationists urge action as the headwaters of the River Thames vanish

Across Europe, rivers have sunk to historic lows because of brutal heat waves fueled by climate change. In Britain, conservationists are urging the government and water companies to take action to counter devastating droughts. Meanwhile, the source of the legendary River Thames has dried up and moved several miles downstream, further than it's ever gone before. Malcolm Brabant reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Across Europe, rivers have sunk to historic lows because of brutal heat waves fueled by climate change. In Britain, conservationists are urging the government and water companies to plant trees and restoring wetlands to counter devastating droughts.

    Meanwhile, the source of the legendary River Thames has dried up and moved several miles downstream, further than it's ever gone before.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant has been in search of the vanishing headwaters.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Normally, you find the source of the Thames near this public 100 miles west of London. Now the name is misleading, because this aquifer has run dry.

    Alisdair Naulls works for a nonprofit striving to make Britain's rivers more resilient.

  • Alisdair Naulls, Engagement Lead, The Rivers Trust:

    What special is the limestone. About 65 percent of the water that comes into the Thames is coming from down there.

    We are taking too much out, and we are not allowing it to be this great big, lovely, cool, shading watery sponge that it has always been. This is so much greener than it was just four or five days ago. It was just ocher.

    If you're kind of used to the Thames in London, which, obviously, it's such a big, iconic, famous river, if you have visited London and want to know where it starts. it starts there.

    So, if we just come down here, there you go. That's the start of the Thames. It's a maybe a little bit underwhelming, but this is the source of the Thames.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    In normal times, what would we see?

  • Alisdair Naulls:

    Well, in normal times, you would see this. This source does dry up each year, pretty much.

    But you can come here when you have got normal levels of rain and you have had a normal wet winter. And we'd be still in a pond.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    We headed east along the river's normal course. Deep water? There wasn't a trickle. Moisture from recent light rain had evaporated. But, eventually, there were signs of life near a meadow in Cricklade, known as the first town on the Thames.

    So, at last, I'm standing in the River Thames, and we found flowing water. But we had to drive eight miles from the original source towards London to be able to find it. At the moment, the water is up to my ankles, but, in better times, it would come up to my knees.

    Mainland Europe has been similarly afflicted. In Serbia, the Danube is impassable in places and no longer blue, shrunk by heat and water extraction to help this year's harvest.

    The stresses on nature alarms marine expert Marija Trivuncevic.

  • Marija Trivuncevic, Vojvodine Angling Association (through translator):

    The circumstances are dire. Although it hasn't been the worst yet, the trend indicates that things will only get worse.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    France's longest river, the Loire, resembles a Mediterranean beach. The consequences could be disastrous for vineyards reliant on its water.

    In Italy, the River Po's low levels have hit hydroelectric power production, commercial shipping and all manner of agriculture. In Switzerland, shrinking glaciers, rivers of ice are another specter of looming catastrophe.

    This year, the melt at the Morteratsch Glacier is twice as bad as the previous worst-case.

    Belgian hiker List Neyt:

  • List Neyt, Hiker:

    We talk about it. You don't see it always in nature, the consequences, and now you really see it. Like, oh, my God, I was here 15 years ago, and now the snow is gone and the rivers in the mountains are not there anymore.

  • Dr. Laurence Wainwright, Oxford University:

    Rivers are very, very good barometer as to the health of the natural environments. And when rivers dry up, there are significant consequences for all other ecosystems.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Dr. Laurence Wainwright specializes in Europe's blighted rivers. Coming to Britain from hot Australia was a shock.

  • Dr. Laurence Wainwright:

    This has been a huge wake up call for the U.K. and for all of Europe that this is not some far-off, distant thing. It's not our children's children. This is now. It's very, very serious. The consequences are potentially devastating across all aspects of society, economically, socially.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The consequences will be particularly dire for Germany, Europe's economic powerhouse. Barges carrying German goods to the sea along the Rhine are bearing lighter loads or have stopped completely because the river is now so shallow.

  • Dr. Laurence Wainwright:

    The last time this happened in 2018 — and mind you, this time is worse — we saw one-and-three-quarters of economic growth go down by half-a-percent. And that may sound quite small, but it's very, very significant. We're talking billions — billions of euros here.

    And the biggest problem, of course, is that we combine this with all of the other compounding factors going on at the moment, rising cost of living, inflation, this energy crisis, and the surge in energy bills around the world. So, things are already in trouble.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Back to the Thames, halfway to London, and hydrologist Hannah Cloke.

    Hannah Cloke, University of Reading: So, you can see here that the water level is very, very low.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    The levels have been exacerbated by abstraction to compensate for Britain wasting 20 percent of its water through leaks.

  • Hannah Cloke:

    We have been taking a lot of water out of the rivers as well to irrigate our crops, in terms of keeping the crops growing and making sure they have got enough water, but also for drinking water and industry as well.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Evidence of the crisis is in the color of the landscape.

  • Alisdair Naulls:

    It's quite interesting to see the autumnal colors of these trees. They're dropping so many lilies, yellow, brown, blackened leaves the trees are dropping in response to this heat stress.

    So, when we think about rivers, you have got to think of those blue and green arteries that flow through our countryside with life in them and all down them. And all of that life is under stress.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Critics accuse water companies of maximizing profit's and not investing enough in rivers or infrastructure. So what can be done?

  • Alisdair Naulls:

    We have got to really plan, invest in putting the wetness back into nature, because it is very, very good at managing water. It has done it for 4.5 billion years. Put trees back in the right place. Let's bring back wetlands. Let's create wetlands. Let's allow our peat bogs to thrive. All of these environments hold water.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Can you feel that?

  • Alisdair Naulls:

    The rain? Yes, it's great, isn't it? But it's not enough. It's not enough.

  • Malcolm Brabant:

    Heavier rain should help the source of Old Father Thames to come back here. But the fear is that being parched will be an annual event.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in England.

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