If you’re feeling a little put on by this winter’s crazy weather, from the arctic cold in the Midwest and Northeast that froze many rivers and gave mammoth headaches to barge operators, pity your brethren in France.
Your operations might have been disrupted for a few days until low water levels on the Mississippi came back to normal and ice floes abated, but commercial and recreational vessel operators on the Seine River around Paris are facing a third week of river shutdown. The Seine has overflowed its banks, making it impossible for boats to navigate this busy waterway and pass below the river’s iconic bridges. It’s not clear when commercial navigation will resume, as the river remains swollen and water levels have been slow to recede.
The river begins in Burgundy, in East-Central France, and flows 485 miles westward until it reaches its mouth at Le Havre, passing through Paris along the way. The Seine is one of France’s major commercial waterways, carrying a constant traffic of barges and other commercial vessels.
I’ve been traveling through Paris this past week, and it’s truly bizarre to look at the river as it winds through this lovely city and see the riverside walking paths submerged, the houseboats abandoned, the idle restaurant barges bobbing in high water, and not a tourist boat or commercial barge in sight along the river’s many twists and turns. The flooding has actually become a tourist attraction, with visitors snapping pictures not of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame cathedral, but of the empty, overflowing river and its swift passing current.
The floodwaters peaked last Monday at just shy of 20′, some 16′ higher than normal. This wasn’t a record, as the river swelled to 28′ in 1910, and floods hit the 20′ mark in 2016, forcing Paris to close some of its famous museums and move artwork from museum basements to higher ground.
But the effect from this winter has been devastating for those who live near the river or make their livelihood from it. More than 400 people have been evacuated from low-lying areas, parts of a major commuter rail line have been suspended, and only emergency vessels are permitted on the river until high water recedes. Several ports outside of Paris have temporarily shutdown, and commercial barge operators have seen their business move from the river to the roads.
Many experts here predict that flooding of the Seine and other waterways in Europe will become more frequent in the years ahead. Some blame climate change for the weather that has caused this mess: a record winter rainfall — the worst in 50 years — that started in December and continues this week with more wet weather falling on the region.
But others say the reason is far more complicated: a mix of incessant rainfall and slow action by authorities over the past few years to establish more effective flood control protections. Just last week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an international body, published a study saying the Paris region still lacks adequate flood control despite measures taken after the catastrophic flood in 2016.
The problem lies upstream from Paris, where four large dams control the river’s flow. In late spring the dams begin stocking large reserves of water that can be released during the dry summer months to keep the river open for navigation. But the dams were already 95% filled when heavy rains started, limiting their ability to store excess water. With heavy rainfalls and saturated soil, flooding ensued. A new project upriver to address the problem and divert floodwaters won’t get started until 2021, so Paris will continue to be vulnerable to flooding until this new infrastructure comes online.
The OECD report said that authorities could learn from flooding experiences in the U.S.: “Examples from the reconstruction of a resilient New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or New York after Sandy, could inspire Paris to build up its own resilience before disaster hits.”
They better get moving. As I look out my window, it’s snowing today and more rain is on the way.