Source of Thames dries up as heatwave scorches Britain
At the end of a dusty path in the South West of England, where the River Thames usually first emerges, there is currently hardly any moisture.
The driest start to a year in decades has shifted the source of this emblematic English river several miles downstream, leaving scorched earth and the occasional puddle where water once flowed.
It is a striking illustration of the parched conditions plaguing parts of England, which have led to a growing number of regional water restrictions and fears that an official drought will soon be declared.
“We haven’t found the Thames yet,” confided Michael Sanders, 62, while vacationing with his wife in the area known as the river’s official source.
The couple planned to walk part of the Thames Path that spans the entire winding path – once they can find the new waterway starting point.
“It’s completely dried up,” the Northern England IT worker told AFP in the village of Ashton Keynes, a few miles from the source, noting that it had been replaced by “the strange puddle, the strange muddy patch”.
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“So hopefully we’ll find the Thames downstream, but right now it’s gone.”
The river begins at an underground spring in this picturesque region at the foot of the Cotswolds hills not far from Wales, then meanders for 350 kilometers to the North Sea.
Along the way, it supplies freshwater to millions of homes, including those in the British capital, London.
After months of minimal rainfall, including England’s driest July since the 1930s, the country’s famously lush landscape has changed from shades of green to yellow.
“It was like walking across the savannah in Africa because it’s so dry and so dry,” exclaimed David Gibbons.
The 60-year-old pensioner has walked the length of the Thames Path with his wife and friends in the opposite direction to Sanders – from mouth to source.
When the group reached their final destination, in a rural area of narrow country lanes dotted with stone houses, Gibbons recounted the array of wildlife they encountered on their journey.
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The Thames, which becomes a navigable strategic and industrial artery as it passes through London and its immediate environs, is typically much more idyllic upstream and a haven for birdwatching and boating.
But as they approached the source, things changed.
“In the past two or three days (there has been) no wildlife, because there is no water,” Gibbons said.
“I think the water stopped about 10 miles from here; there are one or two pools,” he added from picturesque Ashton Keynes.
Andrew Jack, a 47-year-old local government employee who lives about 15 kilometers from the village, said locals had “never seen it as dry and empty as this”.
The river mostly runs along the main street, which has pretty houses with flowered gardens and several small stone walkways over the water.
But the riverbed there is currently parched and cracked, the only visible wildlife that some wasps hover over, recalling images of some South African rivers during the subcontinent’s dry season.
‘Something has changed’
There will be no immediate reprieve for England’s thirsty landscape.
The country’s meteorological agency issued an orange heat warning on Tuesday between Thursday and Sunday for much of southern England and eastern Wales, with temperatures reaching the mid-thirties.
It comes weeks after a previous heat wave broke Britain’s all-time temperature record, breaking 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) for the first time.
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Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that the carbon emissions from people burning fossil fuels are heating the planet, increasing the risk and severity of droughts, heat waves and other such extreme weather events.
Local authorities are repeating the call to conserve water, and Thames Water, which powers 15 million people in London and elsewhere, is the latest provider to announce impending restrictions.
But Gibbons remained optimistic.
“Having lived in England all my life, we’ve had droughts before,” he insisted.
“I think it will turn green again in the fall.”
Jack was more pessimistic as he and his family walked along the dried-up riverbed, where a wooden ruler measures non-existent water levels.
“I think there are a lot of English people who think ‘great, let’s have some European weather’,” he said.
“But we really shouldn’t, and it means something has changed and something has gone wrong.
“I’m afraid it will only get worse and the UK will have to adapt to the warmer weather as we have more and more of these summers.”