The Thames Barrier, visible from the riverside of Silvertown, protects London from flooding. Photo by Holly Munks ⓒ Social Streets

Flood experts discuss the future of the Thames Barrier as water levels rise

After 40 years of the Thames Barrier protecting Londoners from flooding, experts highlight the need for reinforcement in the face of climate change.

Riverside communities from Poplar, the Isle of Dogs and Silvertown all the way to Romford may be at risk of flooding by the year 2050, despite the Thames Barrier.

The Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) commemorated the 40th anniversary of the Thames Barrier’s unveiling on 9 May. They invited experts to an event discussing its future at the ICE’s headquarters in Westminster. 

The Barrier, which was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II in 1984, prevents tidal surges from submerging communities alongside the Thames. It is the world’s second largest movable flood barrier and has been closed over 150 times since it began to operate. In 2014, the International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC) awarded the Barrier the FIDIC Centenary Award for UK Infrastructure.

View of the River Thames at sunset looking towards the Isle of Dogs, East London.
Looking west towards the Isle of Dogs from the Thames Barrier Park. Photo by Holly Munks ⓒ Social Streets

But environmental risks have risen with the tides since then.

Climate change has led to rising sea levels, which threaten the East End due to its relatively low-lying position. The boroughs lining the river have become more populated in recent years, following increased development to the east of London. Housing near bodies of water like the Limehouse Basin and Hackney Marshes are particularly at risk.

The Environment Agency has updated its Thames Estuary 2100 plan. The plan outlines different strategies for improving defence infrastructure along the Thames Barrier. It predicts sea levels to rise approximately 90cm by the year 2100. However, it is adaptable to different levels of change, according to a notice issued by Lewisham council. 

The Plan highlights the next steps in case current defences fail, or future improvements to the barrier prove insufficient. It also emphasises the need to consult communities living alongside the Thames to improve quality of life. This would mean considering how any changes to the barrier’s infrastructure could affect existing residents. 

The action plan allows for different climate outcomes over the next 75 years. The Environment Agency warns that environmental changes are unpredictable. and the current infrastructure ‘may not be enough to hold back the floods.’

Joe Giacomelli, the Agency’s Campaign and Communications Manager, offered this advice for those worried about flooding: 

‘People should check their flood risk, sign up for free flood warnings and keep up to date with the latest situation […] call Floodline on 0345 988 1188 or follow @EnvAgency on Twitter for the latest flood updates.’

Ongoing review is necessary, or the East End faces a return to the floods which damaged the area before the Barrier’s construction. One of the most notable took place in 1953. It saw the collapse of 300 ft of sea wall, after a tidal surge in the Thames Estuary. 

If you have concerns you can view the Environment Agency’s updated action plan available on Gov.uk.  

Hedges and walking path in the Thames Barrier Park with tall buildings in the background, Silvertown, East London.
The extensive Thames Barrier Park is located next to Pontoon Dock DLR. Photo by Holly Munks ⓒ Social Streets

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