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Journal ArticleDOI

A floodplain restoration project on the River Rhône (France): analyzing challenges to its implementation

01 Mar 2015-Regional Environmental Change (Springer Berlin Heidelberg)-Vol. 15, Iss: 3, pp 559-568
TL;DR: In this article, the failure of a floodplain restoration project that was supposed to be implemented on the River Rhone (France) is analyzed based on the analysis of flood-plain restoration projects implementation literature, identifying several constraints on the implementation of the project.
Abstract: Floodplain restoration projects are part of sustainable flood management model. However, in practice, they are rarely implemented. We analyze the failure of a floodplain restoration project that was supposed to be implemented on the River Rhone (France). Based on the analysis of floodplain restoration projects implementation literature, we identified several constraints on the implementation of the project. In accordance with the literature, institutional factors were found to have played a critical role in the failure of the project. Other factors such as opposing representations between inhabitants and river managers were also important. Moreover, the strong involvement of the State alongside river managers proved to be a major constraint on implementation.

Summary (3 min read)

Introduction

  • In accordance with current concerns about climate change, European States are reorganizing their flood management policies to incorporate practices that are consistent with sustainable development (Guerrin 2012).
  • Floodplain restoration projects in general refer to “the creation of ecosystems typical of floodplains on low-lying land which exhibit a hydrological link between river and land” (Moss and Monstadt 2008).
  • Beyond denouncing the low social acceptance of a challenging environmental policy, the authors seek deeper causes of failure, which are structural as well as situational, and therefore comparable with failures of other projects in Europe.
  • This article builds on an in-depth study of flood strategy on the River Rhône that has been implemented since major floods occurred in 2002 and 2003.

1. Identifying the driving forces behind, and constraints on implementation of floodplain restoration

  • In this section the authors present the scientific literature dealing with the implementation of floodplain restoration projects.
  • The authors analyzed this literature in order to identify the main driving forces behind the implementation of such projects, and their constraints.
  • In selecting the literature, the authors considered floodplain restoration in its broad sense.
  • The authors selected documents using the snowballing method starting with core articles and using the list of references to identify others.
  • The small number of articles is due to their strict selection criteria.

2. Floodplain restoration, from Europe to the Rhône

  • The River Rhône has been considerably modified throughout history.
  • The CNR undertook major works on the river and constructed several dams and levees (Pritchard 2011).
  • In 2003, a major study on the Rhône floods was released in an attempt to understand the river basin system and make proposals for policies (Territoire Rhône 2003).
  • Here the authors focus on the strategy designed for the Lower Rhône, that included floodplain restoration projects.
  • What is more, several towns of high economic and demographic importance located downstream were deemed overly vulnerable, and under too much water pressure in the event of flooding.

Institutions

  • The floodplain restoration project was led by a young institution (Plan Rhône) that lacked power and legitimacy.
  • Inhabitants of several floodplains along the Lower Rhone felt concerned by the situation of the floodplain intended for restoration.
  • In addition, little support came from the central government.
  • Even if Mission Rhône was in favor of its implementation, as civil servants and State administrators, they did not have the right to implement the project as commissioners.
  • Plan Rhône was defined at the level of the river but was led by the State.

Participation

  • On the Rhône, the participation of local representatives and inhabitants was organized through consultation committees.
  • The committees were organized by the institution in charge of the project implementation: Mission Rhône itself.
  • Before each public committee meeting, invitations and summaries of previous meetings were sent to the participants.
  • In addition, they tried to educate the inhabitants and political representatives rather than to construct a shared view of the project.
  • They did not incorporate public inputs in the project; they were not powerful enough to negotiate with the local representatives, and their decision-making process was not sufficiently transparent.

Science and Policy

  • Few links were created between science and policy.
  • Expert evaluation was produced by research consultancy and studies were commissioned and coordinated by Mission Rhône.
  • Detailed hydrological studies concluded that this narrative was questionable.
  • Indeed, one of the first scenarios planned to achieve a water storage capacity of 67 million cubic meters (under 3.75 meters of water) in the case of an ‘generalized exceptional flood’ (greater than the 400- year flood) on the whole river and its tributaries (DREAL Rhône Alpes et CNR 2010).
  • As such, the floodplain restoration project was a necessary condition to allow the heightening of dikes on the River Rhône.

Socio-physical features

  • Another problem with project implementation was defining a natural flood.
  • In the Lower Rhône flood management strategy, the reference used for floodplains to be restored is the ‘ZEC”.
  • This study reported that the CNR constructed 150 km of dikes on the Rhône banks (or 35% of its course), transforming 120 km² of floodplains into flood protected areas, which represented 18% of the land that was impacted by the 1856 flood.
  • The term ZEC today designates plains that are considered to be flood prone based on the modeling of a past event in a currently urbanized context.
  • Some inhabitants realized that their area’s flood-prone character was useful to downstream towns, and consequently claimed compensation or at least the recognition of a particular status.

Economics

  • The floodplain restoration project was not a “low-cost project”.
  • The cost of the works to allow the restoration of the floodplain was estimated at 10.4 million Euros, not including the cost of the downstream floodplains whose protection was supposed to be enhanced.
  • Locally, no economic incentive was available to local stakeholders.
  • This was because of the idea that the Rhône floodplain is naturally flood prone.
  • The downstream plains did not consider the potential benefit high enough to take responsibility for implementing the project and organizing compensation locally.

Conclusion

  • The project the authors analyzed came up against a number of difficulties and was finally abandoned.
  • Some could be added to the list.
  • Regarding participation, the project did not empower local actors sufficiently to reinforce the legitimacy of the leading institution and to enable local support.
  • Physical and sociological features identified in the literature did not play a large role in the project failure, except the fact that the floodplain intended for restoration had in the past benefited from a high flood defense strategy that proved, indeed, difficult to challenge.
  • Regarding the economic indicators, what played a role in the failure of the project was the absence of compensation funds granted to the local actors.

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A oodplain restoration project on the River Rhône
(France): analyzing challenges to its implementation
J. Guerrin
To cite this version:
J. Guerrin. A oodplain restoration project on the River Rhône (France): analyzing challenges to
its implementation. Regional Environmental Change, Springer Verlag, 2015, 15 (3), pp.559-568.
�10.1007/s10113-014-0650-8�. �hal-01286058�

A floodplain restoration project on the River Rhône (France).
Analyzing challenges to its implementation
Regional Environmental Change, 2014.
Author’s manuscript
Author
Joana Guerrin
IRSTEA - UMR G-Eau
361, rue J.F.Breton - BP 5095
34 196 Montpellier - France
joana.guerrin@gmail.com
Abstract
Floodplain restoration projects are part of sustainable flood management model. However, in practice, they are
rarely implemented. We analyze the failure of a floodplain restoration project that was supposed to be
implemented on the River Rhône (France). Based on the analysis of floodplain restoration projects
implementation literature, we identified several constraints on the implementation of the project. In accordance
with the literature, institutional factors were found to have played a critical role in the failure of the project.
Other factors such as opposing representations between inhabitants and river managers were also important.
Moreover, the strong involvement of the State alongside river managers proved to be a major constraint on
implementation.
Keywords
Floodplain restoration, Rhône, Floods, Failure.
Word count : 5798
Author-produced version of the article published in Regional Environmental Change, 2015, N°15(3), p.559-568
The original publication is available at http://link.springer.com
Doi: 10.1007/s10113-014-0650-8

I
ntroduction
In accordance with current concerns about climate change, European States are reorganizing their flood
management policies to incorporate practices that are consistent with sustainable development (Guerrin 2012).
At regional and international levels, institutions such as the European Commission (Erdlenbruch et al. 2009), the
OECD (2010), the United Nations or the WWF (2004) promote the concept of sustainable flood management
(Guerrin and Bouleau 2014). In several countries including France (Erdlenbruch et al. 2009), the UK (Werritty
2006; Gardiner 1992), and the Netherlands (Roth and Warner 2009; Warner and van Buuren 2011; Warner et al.
2013; Wiering and Immink 2006), current norms on flood management policies focus on the importance of
managing floods rather than defending against them. Public policies focusing on promoting environmentally
sound and integrated measures for managing floods combine the possibility of human activity and risk
occurrence (Moss and Monstadt 2008). They promote measures that enable populations to live with floods
instead of tackling flood risk by heightening dikes. Floodplain restoration projects form part of this approach
(Ververk and van Buuren 2013).
When accompanied by the construction of dikes, the development of floodplains for agricultural or housing
purposes had hydrological effects (Pigeon 2012; Maltby and Blackwell 2005). Water storage areas used in the
case of floods became reduced, accelerating water runoff, and increasing the risk of dike failure (Moss and
Monstadt 2008). Floodplain restoration projects have been designed across Europe, especially since the 1990s,
with the aim of tackling this issue. Floodplain restoration projects in general refer to “the creation of ecosystems
typical of floodplains on low-lying land which exhibit a hydrological link between river and land” (Moss and
Monstadt 2008). In practice, floodplain restoration projects consist of facilitating the return of water (in the case
of floods) to an area that was flood prone in the past. However, two kinds of floodplain restoration project can be
distinguished: i) projects whose primary aim is to recreate or enhance the ecological functions of the floodplain.
These kinds of project are labeled ‘environmental restoration’ or ‘ecological restoration’; and ii) projects whose
primary aim is to store water by causing the flood to flow to a protected plain, e.g. by reducing existing flood
protection infrastructures, such as the dikes located upstream, to allow the expansion and storage of water in the
case of flooding. These kinds of project used to be labeled ‘calamity polders’ and ‘emergency storage areas’ in
the Netherlands (Roth and Warner 2008) or ‘washlands’ in the UK (Morris 2005). In our case study, we focus on
the challenges involved in a project that consisted of restoring a floodplain for hydraulic purposes, called in
French ‘restauration de zone d’expansion de crues’ (or ZEC).
The principle behind restoring a floodplain for hydraulic purposes is the idea of transferring flood flows from
areas considered to be “highly vulnerable” (such as urban areas) to areas that are considered to be “less
vulnerable” (as they are natural land and farmland) (Erdlenbruch et al. 2009). Indeed, this transfer of risk may
enable highly vulnerable areas to benefit from protection when natural or agricultural land is used for water
storage (usually located upstream from a vulnerable area in order to reduce the water flow). In France, the State
is currently reviewing existing flood risk policies on the River Rhône. This is being achieved through a series of
projects including one that aimed to lower existing dikes to guarantee more protection for towns located
downstream. However, even if floodplain restoration measures are promoted in flood risk literature, in practice
they are rarely implemented (Moss and Monstadt 2008).
Author-produced version of the article published in Regional Environmental Change, 2015, N°15(3), p.559-568
The original publication is available at http://link.springer.com
Doi: 10.1007/s10113-014-0650-8

In this paper, we intend to contribute to understand this low implementation. We examine the challenges to the
implementation of a particular floodplain restoration project on the River Rhône. After seven years of
negotiations and conflicts between state engineers and riverbank inhabitants, the implementation of the project
was abandoned. The aim of this paper is to understand the reasons for this failure. Beyond denouncing the low
social acceptance of a challenging environmental policy, we seek deeper causes of failure, which are structural
as well as situational, and therefore comparable with failures of other projects in Europe.
This article builds on an in-depth study of flood strategy on the River Rhône that has been implemented since
major floods occurred in 2002 and 2003. We analyzed the creation of an institution (Plan Rhône) that
provided a new model for flood risk governance at the level of the river. In particular, we focused our analysis
on a project designed by the Plan Rhône partners to restore a floodplain in the Lower Rhône river basin. We
analyzed both the local and national controversies surrounding this project involving inhabitants, elected
representatives, the public administration and scientists. In this research context, we collected empirical data
from several sources. We conducted 62 semi-structured interviews between 2010 and 2012 with different kinds
of actor: Plan Rhône participants, central and local State officials and elected representatives, opponents of the
floodplain restoration project (inhabitants, associations, local authorities). We reviewed the gray literature
produced by Plan Rhône (experts’ reports, information provided to the public) and other institutions on floods in
general and on the River Rhône in particular. We consulted the scientific literature and experts’ reports on
floods. We analyzed letters exchanged between Plan Rhône and public officials and local governments about the
floodplain restoration project. We consulted archives on the history of the Lower Rhône and the construction of
its infrastructure as well as French historical literature on flood management of the River Rhône. We then
conducted a qualitative analysis of this empirical material to propose an interpretation of the failure of the
floodplain restoration project.
The paper is organized as follows: In the first section, we review the literature on floodplain restoration policy
and the potential driving forces behind, and constraints on, implementation. In section two, we present the case
study. In section three we analyze the challenges faced by engineers who supported the floodplain restoration
project by comparing the literature and the case study.
1. Identifying the driving forces behind, and constraints on implementation of floodplain restoration
projects
In this section we present the scientific literature dealing with the implementation of floodplain restoration
projects. We analyzed this literature in order to identify the main driving forces behind the implementation of
such projects, and their constraints.
In selecting the literature, we considered floodplain restoration in its broad sense. However, we limited our
selection to scientific articles and book chapters dealing with the implementation of floodplain projects in
Europe and written in French or in English. We chose articles that tackled social and political aspects of project
implementation (i.e. we did not focus on technical aspects). We selected documents using the snowballing
method starting with core articles and using the list of references to identify others. We stopped our search when
the information we were finding in the articles appeared to be covered by those we had already read. We finally
selected 14 articles. The small number of articles is due to our strict selection criteria.
Author-produced version of the article published in Regional Environmental Change, 2015, N°15(3), p.559-568
The original publication is available at http://link.springer.com
Doi: 10.1007/s10113-014-0650-8

The literature analysis revealed five categories of driving forces behind, and constraints on the implementation
of floodplain restoration projects: institutions, participation, science and policy, socio-physical features, and
economics. The results of this analysis are summarized in table 1.
2. Floodplain restoration, from Europe to the Rhône
The River Rhône has been considerably modified throughout history. After major floods in 1856 the Emperor
Napoleon III constructed large dikes along the delta (Picon et al. 2006). More recently, after World War II, the
government undertook an extensive river taming project with the aim of promoting river transport and generating
hydraulic power (Pritchard 2004). The public National Rhône Company CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhône),
partly privatized in 2001, was dedicated to the development of the River Rhône. It received specific missions of
public interest: developing navigation, hydroelectric power and irrigation systems in the Rhône river basin
(Giandou 1999). The CNR undertook major works on the river and constructed several dams and levees
(Pritchard 2011). Later nuclear power plants were built on the banks of the newly channeled river. These works
deeply changed the river landscape, and influenced its hydraulic regime (Pritchard 2011), but the inhabitants
only noticed many years after the works were completed.
Between the 1950s and the 1990s, no major flood event occurred on the Rhône (Picon et al. 2006). Based on
these forty years, one could have concluded that the CNR works had a beneficial impact in terms of flood
protection. However, following the first major flood event in 1993, floods found their way back onto the political
agenda. In fact, CNR infrastructures, including levees, were not intended to protect riverbank inhabitants from
floods but to channel the river for hydropower and navigation purposes. Where hydropower plants were built,
houses located behind the levees were protected de facto against 1000-year flood events. But other houses,
located in areas that were not concerned by hydroelectric power, were subject to intense flooding events.
Since the 1990s, several dramatic floods have occurred on the Rhône: in 1993, 1994, 2002, and 2003. Hundreds
of houses were impacted by the Rhône and its tributaries and sometimes even lives were lost. This troubled
period obliged the State to take measures. In 2003, a major study on the Rhône floods was released in an attempt
to understand the river basin system and make proposals for policies (Territoire Rhône 2003). In 2004, the Prime
Minister asked the Prefect (the State’s representative in the Rhône-Alpes Region whose responsibility covers the
whole Rhone river basin) to design a new flood management strategy for the River Rhône. In collaboration with
the Prefect, State representatives, and the elected presidents of the administrative Regions, a contract called
Plan Rhônewas drawn up. This contract, which concerns the period 2007 to 2013, financially linked the
French State, the European Union, the CNR and the main towns concerned as well as the Regions bordering the
Rhône in order to address flood issues at the level of the river basin. This contract entailed a multilevel and
multi-sector policy on the scale of the River Rhône. Indeed, Plan Rhône combined policies concerned with flood
management but also with tourism, culture, energy, water quality and transport.
One of the main aims of Plan Rhône was to produce a new strategy for flood management. Part of this plan,
namely the flood theme, was piloted by a team called Mission Rhônecomprised of State engineers. Mission
Rhône is part of the Ministry of the Environment’s decentralized regional services (called the Regional Direction
of the Environment, Planning and Housing or DREAL). Between 2005 and 2013, Mission Rhône engineers
proposed and started to implement a flood management strategy. To that end, Mission Rhône separated the river
into three geographical entities: Upper Rhône, Middle Rhône and Lower Rhône (Figure 1). For each sector,
Author-produced version of the article published in Regional Environmental Change, 2015, N°15(3), p.559-568
The original publication is available at http://link.springer.com
Doi: 10.1007/s10113-014-0650-8

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Frequently Asked Questions (1)
Q1. What have the authors contributed in "A floodplain restoration project on the river rhône (france): analyzing challenges to its implementation" ?

The authors analyze the failure of a floodplain restoration project that was supposed to be implemented on the River Rhône ( France ). Based on the analysis of floodplain restoration projects implementation literature, the authors identified several constraints on the implementation of the project. In accordance with the literature, institutional factors were found to have played a critical role in the failure of the project.