Water quality over the longue duree, new approaches of complex relations between societies and river basins, the Seine example

AutorMichel Meybeck - Laurence Lestel - Catherine Carré
Michel Meybeck a, Laur ence Lestel a, Catherine Carré b
michel.meybeck@upmc.fr; laurence.lestel@upmc.fr;
a UMR 7619 METIS, Sorbonne université-CNRS-EPHE, Paris, France
b Laboratoire LADYSS, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris, France
The alluvial plains of the River Nile, Tigris and Euphrates, Indus,
Huang He, Danube, Niger and, in the New World, those of the Mississippi
and Amazon, are rich in cultures reflecting the intimate and ancient
connections between Humans and their rivers through the resources
provided, water, food and fiber, and the means of communication. With
time these rivers have been used and changed by these societies, depending
on their technical capacities and social organizations. Their major objective
was (i) to secure their water resources through diversion and irrigation
devices ( e.g. Nile) , (ii) to control the flooding as much as possible (Huang
He) through river works, (iii) to use the fluvial pathway as communication
means (most major rivers in their lower parts), or (iv) to link two river
basins by canals (Grand Canal in China). Meanwhile rivers and their
network, from streams to estuaries, have been passively or actively used
to receive solid and liquid wastes produced by Human activities, such as
agriculture, mining, urbanization, industries, resulting in major changes
of river basins (Meybeck and Helmer, 1989; Turner et al., 1990;
Vörösmarty et al., 2010).
The analysis of these man and river interactions can be realized
through multiple visions, each of them having its disciplinary approaches
and methodology, as archeology, history, sedimentology, ecology,
environmental chemistry . We know that 4000y ago the Nile river was
sacred and used for navigation, irrigation, that in the Rio Tinto river
(Spain) a marked metal contamination resulting from pre-historic mining,
more than 4500y ago can be found in aged sediment (Leblanc et al., 2000),
that in Rome, the Cloaca Maxima – collecting the Forum waste waters to
the Tiber River was in operation, centuries before the Christian era, and
that in Antiquity many cultures had already mastered their water supply
through complex systems of aqueducts and irrigation canals.
When the concept of Anthropocene was coined by Crutzen and
Stoermer (2000), we suggested that rivers were a well-adapted instrument
to illustrate that Humans were now a major control of the functioning of
the Earth system, i.e. the atmosphere, continental biosphere, pedosphere
and hydrosphere and their fluxes of water, material and energy (Meybeck,
2002 and 2003; Steffen et al., 2007). The transformations of rivers and
their basins have been accelerated over the last hundred years (intensive
agriculture, water pollution, damming, river diversion) affecting their
physical, biological and chemical quality and have reached a global level
(Vörösmarty et al., 2004 and 2010; Best, 2019). World Rivers and their
basins can be considered as a major thermometer of the impact of Human
activities on the environment, from the local to global scale (Meybeck,
2003; Vörörsmarty et al., 2010; Rockström et al., 2014; Best 2019). To
better understand the global picture, the social interactions between
Humans and their rivers should be explored in each river basin, for each
water quality issue and over secular periods (Meybeck, 2003; Garcier,
2007; Barcelo and Petrovic, 2011; Vörösmarty et al., 2016; Lestel and
Meybeck, 2017; Kelly et al., 2017). These in-depths analyses need
common conceptual approaches. We have tested some of them in the
Seine river basin.
The complexity of man and river interactions was one of the major
results obtained by three decades of collaborative work on the Seine River
basin (Piren-Seine programme, started in 1989), initially between teams
of hydrologists, hydrogeologists, hydrochemists, hydrobiologists, later
joined by historians of techniques, environmental historians, geographers,
politists and economists (Flipo et al., 2019).This programme has been
continuously financed by a pool of key local to regional institutional actors
of river management, water supply, environmental assessment, and sewage

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