“Overcoming Setbacks: The Challenge of Making the Seine Swimmable for the 2024 Olympic Games”

As there is still one year left for Paris to make the Seine swimmable for the 2024 Olympic Games, several major European cities already allow their residents to take a dip in their waterways. The contexts are different, but the French legislative framework is much stricter. Explanations.

Swimming in the Seine will be a “major legacy” of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games, according to Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo. This is a promise that is more than 30 years old and was already made by Jacques Chirac – who had assured, live on television, that he would swim in the Seine in 1993. A wish that could finally become a reality in the summer of 2025. Three swimming sites are expected to open in the 4th, 12th, and 15th arrondissements of the capital.

However, with one year to go before the start of the Olympic Games, it is hard to believe as the project seems to be facing one setback after another. The latest setback came on Sunday, August 20: for the third time in two weeks, a test event – the mixed relay triathlon – saw its participants forced, at the last minute, to stay at the edge of the pool.

The cause was a high concentration of Escherichia Coli (E. coli) bacteria in the river. However, both the organizers of the Olympics and the politicians refuse to be discouraged. “This test is taking place along the way, the system is not mature.

There are still significant efforts and new means being deployed to improve the quality of the Seine’s water. We have seen that it improves from month to month and will continue to improve,” assured Tony Estanguet, the head of the organizing committee.

Paris is not the only major European city where swimming in the watercourse that crosses it is being considered. In Basel, Vienna, and Copenhagen, it is already a reality and has even become a tourist attraction.

Swiss, German, Danish models…

In Basel, Switzerland, as soon as the good weather returns, residents and tourists can jump into the Rhine and let themselves be carried away by the current. To do this, all you need is a “Wickelfisch,” a waterproof swimming bag that, once clothes and personal belongings are placed inside, serves as a float.

A young person jumps into the Rhine River in Basel on August 10, 2020. © Sébastien Bozon, AFP

In neighboring Germany, open water swimming is also common. In Munich’s English Garden, the largest urban park in Europe, swimmers can dive into an artificial canal or surf on an artificial wave since the 1970s. Despite being a major industrial city, the inhabitants of Essen in the west of the country can also swim in Lake Baldeney.

Several European capitals also offer swimming areas. It is possible to dive into the Danube in Vienna and Belgrade, in the canals of Amsterdam, or even in the port of Copenhagen. During the summer, the Danish city even has a white sand beach, particularly popular among residents looking for some coolness.

People swim in Amager Strandpark on August 7, 2020 in Copenhagen, as a heatwave strikes Denmark. © Claud Bech, AFP

According to the 2023 report on the management of bathing water by the European Environment Agency, the cities with the largest number of bathing water sites are Amsterdam (38), Stockholm (36), Berlin (33), Lugano (28), Geneva (25), Rotterdam (23), and Vienna (23).

“Urban swimming has been experiencing a significant resurgence of interest for several years,” says Julia Moutiez, an architect and doctoral student at the LAVUE laboratory (research laboratory in social science on urban planning), who is working on the return of swimming in the Île-de-France region.

“This is due, first and foremost, to a change in leisure activities. City dwellers increasingly want to reconnect with nature. A river or a lake, unlike a swimming pool, is seen as a natural environment in the heart of the city.”

In addition, there is a need to adapt to increasingly intense periods of heat due to climate change. “Authorities are looking for cool places to cope with heatwaves in cities that often lack them. Turning watercourses into swimming areas, or even tourist destinations, is a way to provide refreshment to the population,” Moutiez explains.

Water quality, legislation…

But while Paris seems to be struggling to successfully complete its project, how have these cities succeeded? Julia Moutiez explains that they all followed the same combination: renewing the sanitation networks and modernizing the wastewater treatment plants.

“However, all the cases mentioned are incomparable because the contexts are very different each time. The difficulty of treating watercourses will depend on many factors – population density, presence of factories, distance from the source…,” she insists. “For example, the Rhine in Basel is much closer to its source than the Seine is in Paris. The river is also much wider, so the water is cleaner and easier to treat.”

“In Copenhagen, it is seawater – the Baltic Sea – that enters the port, not freshwater,” she points out. In this capital often presented as a “green model,” the authorities had launched significant sanitation work in the 1990s, initially to promote biodiversity.

“It was in this context that the first natural pool was opened for swimming. Due to the success of the operation, the authorities decided to make it permanent, and the swimmable areas gradually expanded. Today, it has become a tourist attraction, and there is not a brochure about the city that does not mention it,” adds the doctoral student.

In Paris as well, water quality has improved considerably since the 1990s, according to the specialist. “But, perhaps more than elsewhere, there are some hardships that are difficult to control, especially rainfall.” Precipitation, especially during storms, causes sewage to overflow and a portion of wastewater ends up in the Seine, significantly altering its quality.

This is also a problem in Essen, Germany. Like in Paris, swimming in Lake Baldeney had been banned in the 1970s due to excessive water pollution. It was reopened in 2017 after an extensive project to treat wastewater and monitor water quality. In parallel, the authorities implemented an early warning system for pollution: as soon as rainfall exceeds a certain threshold, swimming is automatically prohibited for a few days.

“In addition to water quality issues, there is another major difference: legislation,” notes Julia Moutiez. “In Switzerland or Germany, when you jump into a river, you engage your individual responsibility. In France, if there is an accident or if you get sick, you can hold the authorities accountable. Therefore, the authorities tend to be much more cautious.”

Improving the image of the Seine

Regardless, even if Paris succeeds in ensuring sufficient water quality for swimming, it still faces a major challenge: improving the image of the Seine. According to a survey by the Ifop institute published on July 1, 2021, the Seine is the least attractive French river for swimming, with 70% of French people refusing to dive into it.

“The river has long been seen as a sewer, a highly polluted and dirty watercourse, or even a place where dead bodies float,” explains Julia Moutiez. “But this archaic image is gradually evolving. Ten years ago, this number would certainly have been even higher.”

“Certainly, the cancellation of events in recent weeks does not help improve this image, but the Olympic Games allow us to show all the work and efforts being made to improve water quality in Paris,” she concludes. “And ultimately, this will change the way we see the Seine.”

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