For decades, the Seine was the smelly companion of the City of Light.
Declared biologically dead in the 1960s, the river only seemed to wake up when flooding threatened to dump brown mud water on the cobblestones of Paris. Advances in wastewater treatment have helped. But swimming has been officially prohibited since 1923. More than two thirds of French people have a negative perception of the river.
And yet, when French officials unveiled their ambitions for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris this month, the Seine was treated as a resurrected national monument, “the capital’s most beautiful avenue” and a place to “unlimited possibilities”.
Breaking with tradition, the opening ceremonies will not take place in a stadium. Instead, athletes and Olympic officials will float down the river, saluting from more than 160 boats, as around 600,000 spectators watch from the stands and streets between the Pont d’Austerlitz and the Eiffel Tower. In the following weeks, some athletes will not only be able to float on the Seine, but also in it. The river is expected to host Olympic open water marathons and triathlons. Once the athletes are gone, the officials want to open the river to everyone.
According to this vision, the Olympic Games would celebrate a turnaround in the river’s fortunes that has been brewing for decades. But to get there, it will take a final sprint. To date, the cleaning of the Seine has already enabled the return of fish the length of the dinghies. Authorities estimate more than £ 1billion will be needed before people can safely follow along.
“The cities of the world are reclaiming their rivers,” said Anne Hidalgo, mayor of Paris and presidential candidate for the Socialist Party.
Likewise, the Thames went from being declared biologically dead to being home to sharks, seals and even seahorses. In Berlin, activists demanded that parts of the Spree River be made swimmable.
In Paris, the authorities hope to seal off areas of the Seine in river water pools, open to the public after the end of the Olympic Games. These would include picturesque sites near the Louvre, Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower, but also in less privileged suburbs, allowing Parisians to reclaim a tradition long lost but unforgettable.
When Paris hosted its first Olympic Games in 1900, swimming competitions almost naturally took place in the Seine, said historian Laurence Lestel. Photos taken in subsequent years show cyclists propelling themselves into the river from diving platforms in front of the Eiffel Tower and swimmers racing down the river on old mattresses.
But industrialization, along with decades of rapid economic and population growth in the capital region, turned the Seine into a large city’s equivalent of a smelly pond, the only benefit of which was that its toxic waters reflected the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame Cathedral. Almost no fish could survive in the Seine for decades, Lestel said.
As mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac has repeatedly promised a cleaning, declaring on television in 1990: “In three years, I will swim in the Seine, in front of witnesses, to show that the Seine has become a real river.
Chirac’s promise was met with laughter.
Three decades later, authorities say the proposal is more serious. Their optimism relies on hidden, partially submerged containers that transmit real-time updates on what is circulating around them – and what is not.
In a brick and stone building on the outskirts of Paris, the data collected by the sensors is displayed on a large screen day and night. They include water CO measurements2 and E. coli bacteria levels. Today, the high-tech barometer of the Seine often flashes green, a sign that the river allows species to breathe again.
Over the past 40 years, the fish species in the Seine have more than increased tenfold. This is in part the result of the tightening of European Union rules on water quality, but also of local initiatives to reverse decades of environmental degradation.
Only 4% of Parisian wastewater was treated in 1970. And until the 1980s, wastewater treatment in the French capital – as in many large European cities – largely focused on human excreta. Chemicals like phosphorus, which can rob rivers of oxygen, have been ignored.
But the 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of stricter regulations and the construction of new treatment plants that filtered not only larger quantities of wastewater, but also a greater diversity of pollutants, explains Vincent Rocher, innovation director for the sanitation service of the capital region.
Today, around 99% of the capital region’s wastewater is treated. Several days, the Seine is already falling below safety alert levels for swimming, officials said.
And then there are days like September 2020, when hundreds of liters of toxic wastewater poured into the river from the site of a cement plant in eastern Paris.
To reduce the frequency of the safety alert being triggered, authorities are focusing on improving the efficiency of existing wastewater treatment plants and have stepped up efforts to prevent boats from dumping their wastewater into the Seine. Authorities are also building a stormwater tank designed to capture more than 12 million gallons of water and limit polluted runoff.
But as these measures start to have an effect, revised EU water quality rules could once again put the Seine out of the reach of ordinary swimmers.
Hidalgo dismissed skepticism about the city’s Olympic swimming plans, saying the water quality requirement for competitions “is not quite the same as for daily swimming.”
It was referring to rules which tend to give more leeway to competition organizers than to officials in charge of public swimming venues. There were sewage and water pollution issues at the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and in Tokyo this year, for example, but in both cases the competitions took place.
French officials insist that their ultimate goal remains to make the Seine accessible to everyone according to EU standards.
About an hour’s drive from the capital, along the banks of the Marne which flows into the Seine, the future has already arrived. In the city of Meaux, swimming was legalized more than a decade ago. The river attracts both the old people who still remember the good old days and the younger ones who wade cautiously or bravely jump into the water for the first time.
“Often in the past, we turned our backs on the river,” says Sylvain Berrios, a mayor of the region who campaigns for better access to swimming. “Now the locals are taking it back. “
Downstream in Paris, people hope to do the same.
Among those campaigning for a return to swimming in the Seine is Arthur Germain, who obtained special permission to swim the 480 miles from the source of the river in northeastern France to its mouth in the Channel for 49 days last summer.
He also happens to be the son of the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo.
© The Washington Post