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

PS/ Your donation (make a donation) allows us to publish and develop Humanitarian Challenges, a free and independent website. Thank you for your support.  

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

Mr President of the Republic, let us protect the humanitarian aid which is in danger!

Violence-abuses, massive population displacements in DRC and emergency relief | © Solidarités International

What is referred to as “humanitarian space” implies that relief efforts must be able to access populations in danger within the framework of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and in accordance with the principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence.

This is unquestionably one of the main issues at stake at the next National Humanitarian Conference (CNH) in Paris on 17 December in the presence of the President of the Republic who announced, at the 75th UN General Assembly on 22 September, that he would present an initiative on the protection, impunity and criminalisation of humanitarian aid at this conference.

Expectations are at the highest level for humanitarian organisations faced with a considerable increase in the needs of populations in danger and, at the same time, a multiplication of political-administrative constraints and an increase in the number of wounded, killed and hostages.

Humanitarian aid is threatened in war zones by the collateral effects of fighting, banditry and threats from groups such as Daesch who, let’s not forget, claimed responsibility for the assassination of 7 ACTED aid workers in Niger on August 9th.

Charline, Antonin, Myriam, Stella, Léo, Nadifa, Kadri Abdou Gamatche, Boubacar Garba Soulay. Victims of the 9 August 2020 attack in Niger.

These dramatic incidents, which increased sharply last year, have been compounded by obstacles, obstacles, and even real threats, due to the “sanctions regime and anti-terrorist laws”, to the point that the UN Security Council recognised this danger at the end of 2019.

Sanctioned humanitarian aid.

Indeed, anti-terrorist laws de facto criminalise humanitarian actors who bring relief to populations in territories where so-called jihadist or terrorist groups operate.  These humanitarian actors can thus be considered as accomplices of terrorists and can be brought before the courts and condemned!

At the same time, a series of obstacles or draconian conditions are placed in the way of humanitarian action and dangerously hamper it. Subject to anti-terrorist laws, banks can go as far as refusing transfers of funds, which are essential for aid programmes in war-torn countries where relief is vital in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

In addition, donors who finance NGO projects, particularly in France, impose so-called “screening” measures aimed at controlling NGO partners, suppliers and staff using specialised software. These measures can go so far as to require ‘screening’ for the first euro spent and sometimes even include the recipients of aid, as now required by the French Development Agency (AFD).

Priority to International Humanitarian Law over anti-terrorist laws in conflict zones.

Let us be clear. There can be no question of the humanitarian community “screening” relief beneficiaries in the name of International Humanitarian Law. It is a matter of our security and incidentally that this is not where the terrorists are! On the other hand, the constant screening of suppliers, partners and NGO members at the first euro is simply not feasible. This is precisely what Thierry Mauricet tells us in his interview published on Défis Humanitaires.

If one can understand anti-terrorist laws, all the more so as we ourselves are victims of terrorism in our humanitarian missions and even at home, in France in Paris and Nice, as elsewhere in the world, it is easy to understand the existential incompatibility between terrorism and humanitarianism.

And then, let’s be serious. If we seek to fight terrorism, let us look at the States that support it, the weaknesses that allow it and, unfortunately, the errors that can fuel it without ever justifying it.

MSF hospital in Kunduz after an American bombing triggered by the Afghan army. 2015 © AFP

One can indeed wonder when one hears the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior in France acknowledge that we are today paying for decades of denial and weakness.

But there is a broader reflection that must challenge us. Is terrorism, which is always condemnable, artificial intelligence technologies, ambient insecurity, the disintegration of social and national cohesion, not leading us down the dangerous slope of generalised tracing and control inspired by the Chinese model where freedom is in question, as the writer Georges Orwell has already announced.

The President of the Republic can prevent the paralysis of humanitarian action.

That is to say that we are expecting a disruptive initiative from the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, on 17 December at the CNH. And the essential thing for us is that International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prevails and, consequently, the Geneva Conventions and the Additional Protocols that legitimise and protect humanitarians in the exercise of their mission in war zones. And this applies to both States and non-State armed groups.

Consequently, it seems essential that humanitarian actors adhering to IHL and humanitarian principles should have an exemption clause from anti-terrorist legislation in war zones. If France wants to set an example in this respect, it could, as Françoise Bouchet-Saulnier, from MSF, proposes in this edition, include this humanitarian exemption provision in the French penal code in order to preventively protect its nationals who could become victims in the future.

Other important subjects are on the agenda of the CNH (humanitarian nexus – development – peace, climate change, European humanitarian airlift, Humanitarian Strategy of the French Republic, Humanitarian Emergency Fund), and we will report on them in our next edition at the beginning of January.

For the first time, the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, will be taking part in the National Humanitarian Conference and we must welcome this presence which cannot be satisfied with a lukewarm initiative, but which requires a disruptive declaration commensurate with the freedom of action that is indispensable for humanitarian relief in the world.

We do not forget that the President of the Republic declared to the United Nations: “This is why, together with French NGOs and our international partners, we are building an initiative to ensure the effectiveness of international law, the protection of humanitarian personnel and the fight against impunity”. He added: “The neutrality of humanitarian action must be respected and its criminalization must be curbed”.

We can only hope that this will be translated into concrete action.

Alain Boinet

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