Flood watch on the river Seine: A return to 1910?

Charles Baubion, OECD Directorate for Public Governance, and Clara Young, OECD Insights

©Laurent Kalfala/AFP

It has been a wet winter in Paris and the River Seine is rising fast: 2 cm, or about an inch, every hour. This will bring the Seine to a little over six metres, as measured by the Austerlitz monitoring station or, as Parisians will tell you, up to the thighs of the Le Zouave statue on the Pont de l’Alma (our photo). That’s how high it got in 2016. Already, several major roadways along the river banks have been flooded over, while the city authorities are issuing warnings, not just in Paris, but in several French cities. How bad can it get?

The 2016 flood caused more than €1billion worth of insured damage, two deaths, and severe disruptions to the transport system. Well over 17,000 people were forced to leave their homes. While upper parts of the river catchment suffered significant damage, Paris itself was spared.  If the water had gone 25 cm or 10 inches higher, it would have been a large-scale crisis, authorities said. There is no room for complacency, and even if the peak this time is officially expected to be reached in the next few days, everyone is monitoring the rainfall closely.

Before 2016, floods in Paris occurred on average every 20 years. The Seine has not significantly overflown since 1955, the high-water mark being the great flood of 1910. At 8.6 m on the Austerlitz scale, the river turned Paris into Venice that winter. In its 2014 Review of Risk Management Policies: Resilience to Major Floods in the Seine Basin, the OECD estimated that a flood of the same magnitude today would cost France between €3 and €30 billion.

The OECD made 14 recommendations on how the Paris region could boost flood resilience and emergency preparedness in the review. More than half of these have been put in place says the follow-up report, released this week, but a better integration of flood risks into urban policies is still being held up by governance and financing difficulties.

Decentralisation and the consolidation of greater Paris into the Grand Paris Metropolitan Authority can open up co-operation on flood management in new administrative structures. The Grand Paris Metropolitan Authority should work closely with local authorities in the Seine basin to define a global, long-term flood strategy for the region.

A flood-resilience framework would give coherence to initiatives such as a charter to design resilient neighbourhoods and a serious rethink of areas within the flood plain that are currently earmarked for densification. Priority could be given to upgrading protective dykes and quay walls along the river as well as critical infrastructure vulnerable to flooding. It could spur storm preparedness for businesses, even small ones, so that they can keep going even as the waters rise. 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.

All of this requires money of course and this week’s report finds that available flood prevention funding is still not enough. For the past 20 years, there has been talk of developing flood water storage–marshlands and an artificial lake–at La Bassée, upstream from Paris. It would be able to take in 55 million cubic metres of water but costs an estimated €600 million. To fund this and other flood resilience projects, the government needs to develop a more ambitious, long-term and holistic strategy co-ordinated with anybody who benefits from flood protection, whether it be network operators, enterprises or local authorities. Even individual citizens in what is one of the richest regions in Europe could do their part by paying a flood prevention tax. Local authorities could explore cutting-edge financial mechanisms to fund initiatives, such as green bonds.

In 2024, Paris will host the Olympic Games. With its ambition to produce 55% less carbon emissions than the 2012 London Olympics, Paris hopes to stage the greenest games in history. If it manages to incorporate flood risk into its planning now, the Olympic Games will be high and dry.

References and links

For further information, please contact Charles Baubion, Risk Management Policy Analyst at the OECD.

Read the report at http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/governance/preventing-the-flooding-of-the-seine-in-the-paris-ile-de-france-region_9789264289932-en#.Wm7cyE3rvIU

Read the press release “Further improvements needed to manage major flood risk in Paris and Seine basin” at http://www.oecd.org/newsroom/further-improvements-needed-to-manage-major-flood-risk-in-paris-and-seine-basin.htm

OECD (2014), Seine Basin, Île-de-France, 2014: Resilience to Major Floods, OECD Publishing, Paris.
http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264208728-en

Read “Small Business Storm Preparedness” at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/50dcbaa5e4b00220dc74e81f/t/   523d9e21e4b0019d4f5b07e9/1379769889160/RedHookStormPreparednessPlan.pdf

Read “What if Paris flooded” in the OECD Observer at http://oe.cd/2bZ

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