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Rivers are suffering

Interview with Erik Orsenna, Chairman of IFGR

Action is needed now, meaning quickly and together, hand in hand

What was your objective by organising IFGR’s 7th session in France, in the Adour-Garonne basin?

Public conference in Toulouse, 15 October 2018

The Adour Garonne basin lacks water. It has become scarcer, more variable and the demand for it is increasing. By taking the example of this basin which will be that most affected by climate change in France, and by providing the testimonies of our international experts to the benefit of local stakeholders, IFGR is continuing its mission as whistle-blower and facilitator of solutions, regarding this key issue of hydric stress and the need for territories to adapt their water management.

What was the context for this new session?

Rivers are suffering everywhere in the world due to climatic deregulation and accelerated urbanisation. The discharge of the Rhone, a river I know well, is decreasing year by year. For how much longer can we count on this gift, this wonderful renewable energy we call hydroelectricity? Elsewhere, in Australia, a water market has been implemented over the last ten years to control consumption, though other reforms, both technological and political will be needed quickly to face temperatures reaching 50°C.

More locally, our works began at Toulouse at the same time as dramatic floods hit Occitania, following long months of drought. Those with little knowledge of climatic problems deem these situations contradictory. In fact, they are two facets of the same reality: climatic deregulation. The decision-makers of the southwest have the courage to face the difficult reality of today. They have just declared water as being a major regional cause and set out the priorities for preserving the resource and ecosystems. It’s the only way to avoid much worse tomorrow. The role of our association is to assist these initiatives so that our rivers can be protected and exploited to achieve greater resilience.

Are politicians the only persons in control to ensure water resources are better protected and shared?

No, of course not and in no way should they act alone! Through water, we touch upon the key issues of democracy and its link with the republic in the literal meaning, that’s to say a common project. If there’s no common project, democracy is nothing more than a means.

Water isn’t only a technical subject. It raises all the questions of living together. Foremost among raw materials, the most necessary for life, it is also a mirror of our societies. Tell me where your water comes from, who controls it, to whom it is offered in priority, and at what price and I’ll tell you which civilisation you belong to and the measures you must take to ensure it lasts.

Offical lunch at the City Hall, before the restitution workshop with Alain Juppé – 19 October 2018

This week was the occasion to reflect on the future of a populated basin, the space crossed by the river and its governance. What priorities for what uses? What practices must change? What urban planning options to choose? What facilities to decide, what investments to be given priority? What knowhow should be disseminated, in schools and elsewhere?

I think the issue of education is fundamental: we are spoiled children, we who can easily obtain water by opening a tap. We have to put an end to these reflexes and make the users of water aware of their interdependence.

Proposals for assisting change


– Put research first

“In our current era of transformation, it’s important to understand what’s happening, by waging on the long-term, cross-disciplinary approaches and communicating the results obtained.”

– Simplify

“Water is affected by sectorial, agricultural, industrial and urban policies and suffers from complex administrative procedures. Good territorial water management requires flexibility and long-term collective vision.”

– Unify

“We should not consider only one river as a living being. This unity must be both geographic and functional.”

– Dynamize

“This means carrying out three types of transition in parallel, concerning energy, agriculture and urbanisation, as they are closely linked. Incubators dedicated to water, start-ups located at strategic points of the territory could breathe life into this new economy.”

– Share

“It’s essential in every domain, initially by sharing data in response to this climatic emergency. The debate on hill reservoirs remains controversial in southwest France. Regarding this issue, it is necessary to go beyond opposition based on principle and individual solutions, the result of inaction. On the contrary, we must privilege control based on the general and public interest regarding water.”


“Scale projects in space and time, whether for irrigation, the supply of drinking water to towns or urban development, allows linking different natural resources, like water, soil and biodiversity, in the long-term.”

– Acquire to share

“We are obliged to recognise that the local populations of cities around the world are winning back their river banks. Rivers have long been artificialized, as they are feared, and hidden from people’s view, further fuelling this fear. The goal is henceforth to do the opposite, by allowing people to rediscover rivers, and by telling their history. Understand and get others to understand to generate trust and act for the community!”

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