What future for large rivers?

Ship entering the Pedro Miguel Locks, Panama Canal. @Camille Moreinc/La Gallery

An interview with Marie-Cécile Grisard « Living with Rivers »

Alain Boinet: You are launching with IAGF the « Living with rivers » campaign, could you present this initiative.

Marie-Cécile Grisard: Launched on 20 June, Living with Rivers is the first public and international mobilisation entirely dedicated to rivers. This first edition will focus on three major rivers: the Rhône, the Saint Lawrence and the Senegal River. The aim is to listen to the voices of those who know or work with them on a daily basis : experts, artists, infrastructure managers or waterway users, sportsmen and women… and above all, local residents. By crossing approaches, and linking knowledge and emotion, we want people to “listen to the voices of rivers”, these living entities that have so much to tell us about our past, our present and our future. It is essential that our societies change their view of rivers and, at the very least, that they take a better look at the rivers that flow through their cities and territories, which are too often ignored or misunderstood!

Living with Rivers also aims to highlight concrete solutions for the preservation of rivers and making people understand that everyone has a role to play. All these testimonies will reveal the strategic role of river ecosystems in meeting global challenges: food resilience, health security, decarbonised energy, green mobility, maintaining biodiversity, etc.


Containers in Port Saint-Louis du Rhone, @Camille Moirenc/La Gallery

The IAGF, of which Erik Orsenna is President, is already five years old. What is your diagnosis of these major rivers today? What are the ills and risks that threaten them and are the problems the same for everyone or are there different situations and solutions?

Our observation is that rivers are in trouble, and this is true throughout the world. The risks are twofold. Climate change, which makes freshwater resources even more fragile; and the pressures exerted directly by man on these ecosystems, both in terms of quality and the volume of water available for all uses. How can we accept all of the benefits of a river – irrigation, transport, energy, but also other more intangible benefits such as landscapes or rituals – without destroying the source forever? How can we withdraw water without exhausting it? Water consumption increased sixfold between 1990 and 2010 and is expected to increase by a further 55% by 2050. All our work within the IAGF is to find the best balance between exploiting rivers and respecting them.

It is important to understand that the threats are not only to rivers, but to all living systems. Our health depends on the health of rivers. Water-related crises – whether due to a lack of water or too much water – will multiply with the impacts of climate change and lead to numerous associated crises: social, economic and geopolitical.

Even if there are specificities according to the rivers, this observation applies on a global scale. IAGF’s raison d’être is to build bridges between knowledge and solutions from one country to another in order to collectively manage rivers more sustainably.

What links and relationships do large rivers have with their ecosystems (springs, rivers, groundwater), their environment (waste, plastic, pollution, etc.) and with the oceans at a time when a United Nations conference is being held in Lisbon on this subject?

It is indeed crucial to have a systemic vision, from the source to the ocean, when dealing with the issue of water. For example, it is estimated that 80% of plastic pollution found in the sea comes from rivers. This is why, for example, IAGF launched, with the Tara Ocean Foundation and the manager of the Rhône River, CNR, the “Plastic-free river, protected ocean” charter for mayors . The solution to plastic is found on land, at the source of pollution!

Another example concerns cities, where it is necessary to better integrate the water cycle into development projects. Architects, urban planners and engineers must rely on solutions offered by nature in the city to invent a more resilient city, which uses the functions of infiltration, evapotranspiration, storage, retention and runoff of water and which returns water to the soil. We need to better accept and use water as a resource, not as a hazard or waste. Living with it rather than trying to control it: this should be the motto of urban policies on water and river management.

What is the role of rivers in the great water cycle and how important is it?

Rivers play a crucial role in the great water cycle. They contribute to its stability in a global way and we must be vigilant to the acceleration of this cycle on a global scale. We are seeing extreme weather phenomena increase in intensity and frequency and we are not at all prepared for this! Look at the dramatic consequences of the floods in Germany and Belgium last year. Or the hardening of positions on resource sharing between countries, as with the Grand Renaissance dam in Ethiopia, or between stakeholders, as on the subject of basins in France. It is urgent to act so that water remains an ally and a source of cooperation!

Montréal Port , @Camille Moirenc/La Gallery (2019)

What are the synergies of IAGF and your campaign with other water actors, such as the FWP in France and around the world?

Our messages only make sense if they are integrated into the discourse carried out in France and internationally by integrated networks of actors, for greater efficiency. Rivers are an important part of the hydrosphere, so we need to know how to carry out joint projects with other freshwater and saltwater stakeholders to find sustainable solutions. In the same way, we are always keen to bring all the stakeholders to the table for concerted solutions.

This approach of dialogue and openness is of course reflected in the Living with Rivers mobilisation: its organising committee is large and the partners numerous. Our idea is to federate energies, to enhance local initiatives and not to replace them. We are stronger together!

What form will this campaign take, what is its agenda and its culmination?

Living with Rivers began in a digital format, with original content posted on the social networks Instagram and Twitter, and the publication of testimonials and stories on our website. Our first objective is to create a community that has a common interest in rivers, whether emotional or professional, and to bring in others who are less familiar with the subject. To do this, there is nothing like being surprised and immersed in the cultures and stories of the people who live the river as closely as possible!

We will also relay the events of all our partners this summer on the international scene, around the Senegal River (Mali, Mauritania, Guinea, Senegal), the St. Lawrence (United States, Canada) and the Rhône (Switzerland, France). This effervescence of views and ideas will culminate in the closing event Living with Rivers at the Musée des Confluences in Lyon on 27 October. This interactive evening, which will be broadcast in France and abroad, will bring together all those involved in the defence of rivers and will make a universal plea for their protection. This evening will also be part of the programming of the museum’s new exhibition, “Nous, les fleuves”, of which IAGF is a partner.

Mauritanian children bathing between Dagana and Podor @Camille Moirenc/La Gallery (2018)

How would you like to conclude this interview?

Join this worldwide mobilisation around rivers! We are curious to know your relationship with the river and count on your commitment to their future, and therefore also ours! #livingwithrivers

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Who is Marie-Cécile Grisard? 

“Since 2018, Marie-Cécile Grisard has been leading the activities of ‘Initiatives pour l’Avenir des Grands Fleuves’ (IAGF), an association with an international dimension that carries the voice of rivers to safeguard and enhance them in the transition to a more sustainable world. Before specialising in the field of water, she worked in the renewable energy sector. With a dual education in political sciences and communication, she has always worked for the general interest.




Instagram : The Instagram account Living with Rivers

Sahelian region, water in the Liptako-Gourma


Cows drinking in a water hole near the village of Dagala (chad) an dused by nomad tribes, Geneva Water Hub (2017)

Study reveals role of finance for water in fragile Sahelian region

A study into the financing of water-related projects in the fragile Liptako-Gourma region of the Sahel has paved the way for a dialogue on responses to the security crises in the area. The study was intended to reveal how water initiatives for domestic and productive uses are deployed through development project and humanitarian actions in fragile areas such as the Liptako-Gourma region against the background of a deterioration in the security situation and a growing humanitarian crisis. Underlying the study was the evidence that water is a priority need for conflict affected communities as well as a key to the revival of the rural economy. Despite strong willingness of the international community both to support the development efforts of the states in the region and to respond to humanitarian needs, a sound and comprehensive vision on the strategic role of water is still missing.

To contribute to this complex endeavour, one of the key objectives of the study was to provide a unified overview of all the water related initiatives that were underway in this fragile area in 2020. The study inventoried a total of 575 budgetary commitments in the area consisting of 218 development projects and 357 flows of humanitarian support in order to draw conclusions about financial strategies in the field of water services and productive water uses. The study outlines project portfolio of all funders and agencies that engages in water for domestic and productive uses in the region. Furthermore, the study incorporated views of local leaders and actors on the current crisis, that were collected during a strategic meeting in June 2021 in Ouagadougou. They were invited to communicate their opinion on the existing support being provided, the role that water play in local intercommunity dynamics and the role local communities living in these fragile areas aspire to play as part of the solution to the current situation.

Researchers note that projects dedicated to water and sanitation, there are significant geographical disparities: some 60% of budget allocations are for urban projects whereas 80% of the population on the region is rural. But beyond this classical lecture of disparity, they called for a more elaborated views on various water points in rural Sahel, backed by geodata mapping, to further understand the hydropolitical stakes behind the key challenge of addressing socio-economic fragilities and local inequalities to access natural resources and basis services that are fuelling the security crisis.

Distribution of budgets for single-sector water development projects by type of water, Geneva Water Hub (2022)

Developing open access to information on international aid and other major principles of aid effectiveness is one key obstacle in that view. A strategic vision is needed to move beyond the typical investment in major watercourse in order to encompass groundwater, and semi-temporary surface water. That vision should encompass water, soil and forestry preservation community-led measures to mitigate the coming structural drought period in less than a decade. Further, strategic maps highlight the distribution of violent incidents in this border zone of project deployments, which calls for the operationalisation of a nexus between development and humanitarian actors. The authors notice that despite a highly fragmented setting of coordination, dialogues and initiatives by these actors are underway to implement innovative bottom-approaches and collaborate to reinforce institutions and service providers of the region to meet the lasting recovery challenge.

Water extraction by a camel from a well, Geneva Water Hub (nd.)

There is strong context among researchers that any approach should address the challenge of ensuring coherence at local level by building interventions upon key figures of local communities. This would be necessary to restore social contract among population and facilitate the return of state presence on a background of failed development policies which had its part of responsibilities in the burst of the crisis. As a vital and irreplaceable resource of rural economy, water cooperation has the potential to open dialogues among rival communities and engage states to reinvent their development policies.

Tobias Schmitz,

Editor of The Water Diplomat news media


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Read the full study: The water-related funding strategies in the Liptako-Gourma region; the challenges of cooperation between humanitarian aid, development and peace

Geneva Water Hub