The Ramsar Wetland Conservation Award winners for 2002 [French original]

22/12/2002

Recognition of Excellence

Dr Monique Coulet (France)

Monique Coulet talks to Fabrice Nicolino

Translation of excerpts from an article in the September issue (176) of Terre Sauvage

Monique Coulet, a research scientist with the CNRS, began working almost thirty years ago in a pioneering team which was studying the life cycle of the River Rhône. The admirable lesson that she has learnt from this enthralling research is that a great river must remain free. For its own sake and for ours.

Terre Sauvage: Monique Coulet, you have just received a prestigious award, the Recognition of Excellence in the context of the 2002 Ramsar Wetland Conservation Awards. You received the award for both your scientific research and for your commitment to the protection of rivers. Could you tell us how it all started?

Monique Coulet: After passing my baccalaureat I wanted to study medicine, but my parents were reluctant to pay for such a long period of study. So I went to technical college where I was lucky enough to join Professor Jacques Wautier's laboratory in Lyon University. He was one of the first to teach environmental science as a subject in France. I was a lab technician and we studied streams and small rivers (...). After taking two degree certificates I told my boss that I wanted to take a higher degree, and that I had even found a subject which seemed very interesting. A colleague in the lab had started studying a small mollusc, but had left, and the research had stopped.

T S: What was so interesting about it? What was it called?

M C: It has a different name now, it's called Ferrissia (...). Its shell could have three different shapes and I wanted to find out why. I started studying it outside working hours and finally, after a lot of work, I wrote my doctor's thesis on it.

T S: And was that when you started studying the Rhône?

M C: In 1975 the CNRS started a research programme on the Rhône, headed by Professor A.L.Roux. We had put together a multi-disciplinary team, with hydrobiologists like us, botanists, a geomorphologist, a historian, a geographer, an economist, a jurist (...). The idea was to understand the river as a whole, to study it from all angles and find out all its secrets, in order to propose new management methods to decision-makers. To start with, we had to create a common vocabulary among all the disciplines so that we could all understand one another. We biologists then started to find out which animals lived in the river and we studied their lifecycles. It's not too difficult to understand how a stream or a small river functions. You put your boots on, you look under rocks, you follow the river's course, everything is more or less on a human scale. But, when you have a seven-metre deep river whose current can sweep you away in just a few seconds, you have a problem. So we had to develop a methodology for studying this enormous ecosystem. We had to invent everything from scratch. After seven years of fieldwork and laboratory analysis we produced some very interesting initial results.

T S: Could you summarise them for us?

M C: We found that a large river does not just have one dimension, flowing downstream, but that the ecosystem must also be seen in its transverse dimension, with its secondary channels, its cut-offs, marshes, old river beds, and alluvial forest... and in its vertical dimension, together with its alluvial stratum, the underground system below the river waters. For the first time we were able to show that there is a whole living world inside the alluvial stratum. There are typical cave-dwelling animals, but also animals from the river itself which take shelter in the alluvium. The alluvial stratum is regularly replenished by the surface waters and has an essential function for both the biology and hydrology of the ecosystem (floodwater retention, and water supply during periods of low water). The results reopened the whole question of the traditional management of rivers with more than a century of damming and diking behind them. When left alone, rivers act naturally to regulate water resources both in terms of quality and quantity, and they do so throughout the ecosystem (secondary channels, cut-offs, old river beds, marshes, forests and the alluvial stratum...) and they can withstand all kinds of man-made pressure. Too much management makes rivers vulnerable and the slightest pollution or rainfall causes a disaster. Obviously no one wants to ban all development activity but we need a compromise between the needs of the river and those of society.

T S: Madame Coulet, apart from your scientific work, you have a long history of nature protection activities.

M C: Yes, I've been a member of the Rhône-Alpes Nature Protection Federation (FRAPNA) since it was created by Philippe Lebreton in 1967. As a member of the Association, I have been able to use my skills and my recently acquired scientific knowledge of rivers to try to make decision-makers understand that it's essential to bring about a thorough change in the way watercourses are managed and to get across the idea that rivers need room to be free.

T S: And that was when you opposed plans to build dams on the Loire.

M C: Yes, after helping to stop plans to build the 20th dam on the Rhône, in 1986 I created the 'Loire vivante' Campaign which brought together all the nature protection associations in the Loire valley, to combat the Loire development project. Our campaign managed to prevent the building of two out of the four planned dams.

Here, Monique Coulet talks to Marie-Aurore Malnoury, Communications Officer in the Directorate for Nature and Landscape at the Ministry of the Environment and Sustainable Development - September 2002

M-A M: Please tell us how you fought against the Rhine-Rhône river link.

M C: This was a project dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. The intention was to build a wide river link between the Saône and the Rhine running through the Doubs and over the Rhine-Rhône watershed. The project had been declared to be in the public interest in 1978, which had led to the first wave of strong opposition on the part of nature protection associations. However, work to widen the waterways was first concentrated on the Rhône and the Saône, and the opposition gradually died down. In 1989, when work was getting dangerously close to the confluence of the Doubs and the Saône I set up the Saône-Doubs campaign, bringing together nature protection associations from the Rhône and Rhine basins, the Green Party, fishermen, consumer associations... to oppose the river link. Bringing 4500 tonne convoys through a river with a flow of 1500 m3/s (the Rhône) or even 400 m3/s (the Saône) is acceptable, because the waterways can bear it. However, when you have a flow of 100 m3/s in winter and just 8 m3/s during low water periods (the Doubs), the work needed to allow passage for convoys 191 metres long and 11 metres wide would have a considerable environmental impact. The plan was to adapt the size of the rivers to that of our barges, not the contrary. The Doubs' many meanders were incompatible with shipping of that size, and it needed straightening out. Once straightened, it would also have been shorter and during high-water periods water would obviously have flowed much faster, which, when peak water periods combined with those of its tributary, the Loue, would have caused major flooding in the lower Doubs valley and the Saône valley. In addition, the Franche Comté is karst country, and little is known about its underground waters. The project ran the risk of causing profound changes to underground hydrology, which would certainly have caused problems for urban water supply, etc....

We had plenty of hydrological and environmental scientific facts to back up our ideas, and the whole question was whether the project was of sufficient economic interest to justify its implementation. The answer was No, far from it: the river link was not economically viable. More than 50 locks would have been needed between Strasbourg and the Mediterranean. That would have caused major transport delays, and therefore much higher costs than for the sea route via Gibraltar. Add to that the fact that bridges in Lyon would have needed to be modified, and that convoys would have been seriously hampered by the meanders of the Saône near Lyon etc... Our economic arguments were also confirmed by a confidential report by the Inspection Générale des Finances, which we managed to have published.

In 1997, when the Socialist government came to power, the Green Party managed to get the project abandoned. In fact, the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, which was supposed to acquire all the land needed for the project before June 1998 (the date when the validity of the declaration of public interest expired) was already in trouble, because our campaign had managed to have lots of private individuals, including foreigners, buy up plots of the land, and expropriation procedures were becoming impossible.
It was a hard-won victory because it was very difficult for us to have our position properly understood: we are in favour of developing waterways as a transport mode, but we are against taking barges over mountains.

M-A M. And you took advantage of your victory to have the Rhône restored.

M C: Since France was saving more than 40 billion by abandoning the project I asked the government to set aside a small amount of that money to restore the Rhône which, with its 19 dams, had paid a heavy price for electricity production. I managed to get the Compagnie Nationale du Rhône to agree to release 350 million over 10 years to raise the flow levels on those parts of the river which had been bypassed when the hydroelectric dams had been built. Since the catchment agency had already decided to spend the same amount over 10 years, 700 million are going to be spent on the partial restoration of life to the river (restoration of tributaries, oxbows…).

M-A M: Madame Coulet, how do you feel about the Ramsar Recognition of Excellence which has been awarded to you?

M C: I must say that I'm especially pleased, because the award recognises the value of active involvement in nature protection associations, and that such associations are essential counterweights in a democracy. Since our action is based on unimpeachable scientific grounds, it is our civic duty to inform our elected representatives and decision makers about it. In our various campaigns, I must say that I have frequently enjoyed the support of the staff and the Ministers (particularly C. Lepage and D. Voynet) in the Ministry of the Environment.

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