Water, which we are made of

15. March 2024
Berggeist 007 / Pixelio

The Rhône River, which flows through Switzerland and France, suffers from pollution, water extraction, biotope destruction and climate change. A citizens' assembly has developed proposals to protect France's most water-rich river.

In 2021, a Swiss company boss stood trial for years for discharging water into the Rhône that was up to 3,600 times more polluted than permitted. The man was found guilty of water pollution and sentenced to three months suspended prison and a fine of 2,500 Swiss francs (2,300 euros).

"Environmental law ineffective"

Critics consider such a punishment ridiculous. They say the case demonstrates the ineffectiveness of current environmental law and the urgent need to change legislative and legal norms to defend the rights of nature so that the environment and biodiversity can be preserved and safeguarded.

The Assemblée populaire du Rhône (Rhône People's Assembly) began its deliberations in August 2021. The aim was to develop ideas for a different approach to the 807-kilometre-long river, which flows into the Mediterranean near Marseille. By August 2023, 30 randomly selected citizens from the French and Swiss catchment areas of the Rhône had discussed the topic. The results were presented to the public on 15 March 2024.

"Decision-making procedures unsuitable"

In their report, the Citizens' Assembly participants state that they believe that the current decision-making procedures are unsuitable for protecting the Rhône and its ecosystems. At a legal level, the current situation in the area of environmental law is problematic. Court judgements are not being implemented adequately. The current laws do not guarantee the right of the river and its tributaries to exist, maintain themselves and regenerate.

In addition, several decision-making channels exist side by side in the Rhône catchment area. None of them allow residents and communities to participate in decisions that affect their area. Furthermore, the decision-making procedures did not take sufficient account of the transnational dimension of the Rhône and its catchment area. Nor did they enable sustainable utilisation management. They did not promote the health of the Rhône and its tributaries, nor that of its neighbours.

Improve decision-making processes

Improved decision-making procedures should help to ensure that ecosystems, long-term perspectives and comprehensive consideration of the challenges take precedence over economics and short-term thinking in the Rhône catchment area. In planning, biodiversity should take precedence over the utilisation of the river for economic purposes. New decision-making structures should be based on the planetary limits to economic growth, the interdependence of all life and the transnational dimension of the Rhône.

Committees consisting of interest groups (experts, local authorities, residents and associations) should be responsible for planning procedures related to the Rhône. For effective protection of the Rhône, it is important to make all information available that is necessary for understanding the health of the river.

Rhône Appeal

The citizens' assembly was set up by the association "id-eau", which campaigns for the protection of freshwater in Switzerland. Id-eau had launched the Rhône Appeal in 2020, a campaign to get the river recognised as a legal entity so that it could be better protected from harmful encroachment. Giving the Rhône a legal personality means moving from the right to repair to the right to preserve.

Frédéric Pitaval is president of Id-eau. "Water is at the heart of our societal problems: climate change, mass extinction, pollution, agriculture, health, etc. Water, which we are made of, can be found in all of our societal problems," explains the environmental scientist and oceanologist.

"A lever for discussion"

Water is also an incredible lever for discussions, he adds. "It is often associated with well-being, and it is indeed its absence that increases death rates. If the number of PPM of CO2 in the atmosphere is rather abstract, water - which can run out or smell bad - is more tangible."

For Pitaval, the citizens' assembly is a step towards better protection of the Rhône. "It is a question of going beyond the theoretical debate and ensuring that the 'guardians' of the river are drawn from the population, far from the model we know in France and Switzerland with the water agencies, which are a delegation of the State," says the environmental scientist.

Steering committee and expert advisory board

The independence of the citizens' assembly on the future of the Rhône was ensured by a steering committee of experts independent of Id-eau. An expert advisory board prepared the random selection of the assembly participants, drew up the agenda and took care of inviting experts and moderators to the proceedings.

After the conclusion of the citizens' assembly, the id-eau association and its campaign partners are pushing for the implementation of the assembly recommendations by bringing them to parliaments and political leaders.

Read more: Assemblée populaire du Rhône