Not yet tame: River Thames shows its power

LONDON - Its waters tamed by locks and barriers, the River Thames embodies a particular image of English life: of village greens, picturesque houses, riverside pubs and rowing.

But that image was shattered this week when heavy rain caused the Thames to burst its banks, flooding hundreds of homes in the affluent counties to the west of London - a sharp reminder of the power of nature.

"It's normally flowing very slowly and gently. But when you get these large winter floods it turns into a roaring beast," said Hannah Cloke, associate professor in hydrology at the University of Reading.

The Thames is Britain's second longest river after the Severn, stretching 215 miles (345 kilometres) from the Cotswolds in the southwest of England, past the university spires of Oxford and the royal town of Windsor, through central London and out to the North Sea.

The river is no stranger to flooding - in 1953 a disastrous tidal surge along the Thames Estuary caused the deaths of more than 300 people.

Various flood defence schemes have helped restrict the damage in recent years, from the Thames Barrier in London to the man-made Jubilee River, which diverts floods away from the royal town of Windsor and the elite Eton school.

But southern England has experienced its wettest January since 1766, putting extraordinary pressure on flood defences - and offering a brutal reminder that there is only so much man can do to hold back nature.

'Sacrificed for bigger towns'

Wraysbury, a half-submerged village near Windsor, has experienced its worst flooding since 1947 this week and many residents blame the Environment Agency, the government body responsible for flood defences.

The agency says the Jubilee River, built in 2002, has protected 3,000 homes this winter in the genteel towns of Windsor, Maidenhead and Eton. But in Wraysbury, locals say it has simply diverted the water to them.

"We have been sacrificed to Maidenhead and Windsor, to save the big towns," flood warden Su Burrows told AFP.

"We understand it's a numbers game, you save 100 businesses and you lose 50 homes, but we need more information on how to manage it."

Toby Willison, a regional director at the Environment Agency, acknowledged there was "always more we can do" but defended his organisation.

"We need to see it in context - we have had the wettest January on record, and it is likely that we will have the wettest December, January and February for 250 years," he said.

'London is well protected'

The agency's most successful flood scheme is the Thames Barrier, comprising 10 steel gates lying across a 520-metre section of the river at Woolwich in east London.

Completed in 1982, the barrier is intended to stop sea water flowing into the city at exceptionally high tide or during a storm, although it also has a use at times of flooding.

It has been closed 28 times this year alone, blocking incoming tidal waters which might stop the floodwater draining out, and in doing so easing the pressure upstream.

Willison says there is no risk of the Thames flooding extending to London, telling AFP: "The city of London is one of the best protected capital cities in the world."

This is good news for Londoners, but not much comfort for those further west, either now, with more heavy rain forecast for the coming days, or perhaps in the years to come.

Some experts have suggested climate change is to blame for the freak wet weather.

Cloke, the hydrologist, says this might or might not be the case - but either way, people in the Thames area should get ready.

"We haven't been flooded quite so often in the 1960s, 70s, 80s and 90s and people have forgotten that most of the Thames is a flood plain and have built lots of houses," she said.

"So we would expect it to flood like this and we should be prepared for it."