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“Lakes, rivers, etc. The proximity of water provides resilience to cities”

Gilles Mulhauser, Managing Director of the Geneva Water Agency and member of IFGR, will host the association’s 10th international session devoted to the links between rivers, lakes and cities. Before this meeting, he shares with us his feedback on the Covid-19 crisis and the challenges facing the cities of the future.

How have you adapted to the crisis? What were the impacts of the pandemic for the Geneva Water Agency?

The first impact was managerial, with the organization of teleworking for the Agency’s hundred employees.

Our activities in the field were also affected: in particular public renaturation works were interrupted. In Geneva, we’re building a new beach on Lake Geneva, since one of our missions is developing access to the water. The project was due for delivery on 15 May. Now, we think we’ll be able to open this new beach at the end of autumn.

Without this new means of access to the water, which provides a shaded and cool space during heatwaves, the population will flock to other places, where developments for safety and information in some cases haven’t yet been completed. The demand is very strong.

White-water swimming is tending to become established in the Rhône in Geneva. For many, this is a new practice and can be dangerous. Rather than prohibit, we prefer to organize the practices. Over the last 3 years, we’ve been carrying out an awareness campaign on the social networks. In the field, social workers and volunteers work to prevent activities leading to risks, to encourage respect for the aquatic environment, and reduce disturbance to the surrounding inhabitants.  The way in which containment was established in Switzerland showed how much the population demanded outings in the open air or in public spaces.

What lessons have you drawn from this crisis?

In Nagoya, in 2010, the convention on biological diversity set a target of giving 17% of land protected status. Also, as part of its strategy in favor of biodiversity for 2030, presented at the end of May, the European Commission aims to convert at least 30% of the Union’s land and sea into protected areas. However, the issue also concerns lakes and rivers. Today, the river is experienced as a balcony overlooking the city, and possibly a place to cool off, especially in summer. This makes it necessary to organize public spaces, without generating additional risks. These are spaces that provide resilience to the city and make it livable despite global warming.

What is the situation of water resources in your territory as summer approaches?

In Switzerland, some watercourses are not supplied due to drought.

We experienced a major drought in early spring, which has since subsided. Yet the issue of scarcity seems far away to most people, since 90% of our water comes from Lake Geneva, which holds the largest volume of water in Europe. Regarding the discharges of the rivers, the annual mass varies little, though the distribution of volumes depending on the month is different. Is it a natural phenomenon or does it stem from human factors? Have we made too many withdrawals to satisfy economic needs (industrial, agricultural, etc.), to the point of jeopardizing the good health of our rivers for our children? An observatory will have to be set up to ensure governance and organise withdrawals by actors and activities.

What are the challenges that your organization has to face?

At the moment, we observe that water is only considered in the framework of the service it provides: being available at the tap, providing leisure activities like angling and bathing, and so forth. We have to perceive water resources as a capital. Our practices should only concern the interests of the latter without impacting on the basic heritage, which should remain constant in quality and quantity.

Water is only considered in the framework of the service it provides: being available at the tap, providing leisure activities like angling and bathing, and so forth. We have to perceive water resources as a capital.

We have to better anticipate and do everything we can to preserve this capital. Right now,technologies are being developed to create a network for heating and cooling urban neighbourhoods, using the temperature of the lake water. But what will the feedback consequences of such a system be on the temperature of the water in the lake? With the CIPEL – International Commission for the Protection of Lake Geneva’s Water -, we are setting up an observatory that will establish indicators and help us to take decisions that will limit the impact on our water resources.

Furthermore, we consider that 50 tons of plastic enter the waters of Lake Geneva every year. 10% of this volume will enter the Rhone in the form of plastic microparticles, which will then be deposited in the sediments of the Camargue, the Gulf of Lion, etc. We estimate that 30% of these 50 tons of plastic come from tire dust. There is therefore a need to develop alternatives.


What impacts does climate change have on your territory?

We’re seeing changes in animal and plant populations. Apart from the case of invasive species, it remains difficult to determine whether these changes stem from normal climatic pulses or whether they can be imputed to other factors under anthropogenic influence.

Volunteers of the Association pour la Sauvegarde du Léman (ASL) remove plastic waste from the lake’ waters

Last, the Swiss Court of Auditors of Geneva has taken up the issue of drinking water resources, and is calling for cross-border planning. In the future, we must reflect on crossing and interconnecting our networks, despite the border. This raises technical, legal and financial questions. Senegal and Mauritania are experiencing it. So, Switzerland and France should also be able to set an example in this direction.

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