Drinkable Rivers Thames Walk

Drinkable Rivers Thames Walk

Drinkable Rivers

A worldwide initiative for healthy waterways heads to the Thames

In September, Dutch couple Li An Phoa and her partner Maarten van der Schaaf will walk 350 kilometres from the source of the Thames in the Cotswolds to its mouth at the North Sea. Their aim is to raise awareness of river pollution and environmental damage to the surrounding areas, with the goal of making the world’s rivers so healthy that we could drink from them again.

Li An is the founder of Drinkable Rivers and over the past ten years, she has walked more than 18,000 kilometres alongside rivers for the project. Maarten is a writer and journalist and has co-written a new book with Li An: Drinkable Rivers: how the river became my teacher.

Li An explains: “‘Drinkable rivers’ is our compass and offers a shared direction. It is is easy to understand, with parameters we can measure. We’re not literally talking about providing water to drink but achieving an ecologically sound river that is safe for wildlife and safe for us.”

They have already walked river routes in The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and France but they have set their sights on the Thames for several reasons. “It is such a famous river and is so well loved so hopefully this walk will have a big ripple effect and reach more hearts around the world. Plus, it is also relatively short so it is manageable to walk from source to sea.”

The walk will take a month, starting 17 September, and along the way, they will meet everyone from policy-makers and environmentalists to schools and river users to look at how to make the Thames healthier. Everyone is invited to join their walk and there will be events along the way. They will stay with locals too so that the conversation will extend further into the community.

Together with school-children, they will undertake citizen science of the water quality of the Thames on a daily basis, with the results forming part of Drinkable Rivers’ international programme monitoring the health of rivers. All the collected data is available at There are 28 different parameters that take an hour in total to measure. This toolkit is now being used by 60 organisations in 20 countries. “People have the power to continue with the toolkit to measure changes overtime, how the water varies upstream and downstream or before and after heavy rainfall,” says Li An.

Since they have started their walks, they have seen support grow and they meet yearly with an international community that has committed to take action on a local level. The hope is that support will burgeon following the Thames walk, the first in an English-speaking country which will make the initiative more accessible worldwide.

The ethos of source to sea is important. “From the source, it starts with the first farmer, mayor, school, community, if they adopt this compass for a drinkable river, it flows towards the sea, mobilising people along the way.”

In London, as the route heads towards the sea, it will go through the City and Li An hopes it will raise awareness of what a healthy economy could look like.

As well as helping to raise awareness by joining the walk, we can all make a difference in achieving healthier rivers. She notes: “The soaps and cleaning products we use, the clothes we wear, how we move around – all these lifestyle choices have an effect on our water systems. If we avoid foods that have been sprayed with chemicals it will make a difference. We can also make sure we’re not flushing wet wipes and old medicines down the toilet, which end up in our water ways.”

And one small thing we should all do – appreciate our water, she says. “We have this very straightforward relationship with our water. If we take a second to be thankful for water it changes how we feel about it. We tend to take it for granted. But water is life.”

Local dates and locations

The walk will pass through Surrey and SW London in October:

05 – Laleham to Hampton Court
06 – Hampton Court to Kew Bridge
07 – Kew Bridge to Chelsea Bridge
08 – Chelsea Bridge to Greenwich