Earth Law Center partners with Notre Affaire à Tous to seek rights recognition to continue the daylighting of La Bievre River in Paris, France.
Meet the Bievre River
Starting thirty-three kilometers (20 miles) away from Paris in the Yvelines and feeding into the Seine at Gare d’Austerlitz, the Bièvre once flourished as a vibrant river and has supported humans since the Neolithic period. The river was named after the beavers that lived on its banks (derived from the Gaul bèbros).[i]
Since the 11th century, the River Bièvre and its catchment area has been very heavily modified. Numerous mills were built along its course, which led to the straightening of the river. Increasing urbanisation and the establishment of industrial and craft activities along the Bièvre transformed it into an "open sewer". Starting in the 18th century, the river was gradually culverted. Today, the Bièvre forms a rainwater system. It has become an alternative means of transportation for wastewater when the sewers are out of action.[ii]
Centuries of overuse and abuse, from the businesses that depended on the Bièvre, polluted it so badly that it became a health hazard for Parisians. By 1912, the Parisian half of the river was completely concealed. Today it is a sad part of the Parisian sewage systems.[iii]
"Earth Law Center is proud to work with Valerie Cabanes, Notre Affaire à Tous (NAAT), and other leaders in France to daylight the Bievre River in enforcement of its right to be free" says Grant Wilson, Directing Attorney of Earth Law Center. "We also hope that daylighting the Bievre will inspire other communities to restore their entombed rivers," he adds.
Daylighting Hidden Rivers
Many towns and cities around the world have unseen flows of water which snake underneath concrete streets: ‘lost’ rivers which have been rerouted into sewers, drains and culverts as urban areas have grown.[iv]
River restoration – the restoration of water flows and aquatic life to a largely ‘natural’ state – has been a topic of increasing interest over recent years, and organizations such as the River Restoration Centre and the European Centre for River Restoration have formed to promote restoration work.
Deculverting or ‘daylighting’ is the process of uncovering buried urban rivers and streams, and restoring them to more natural conditions. Daylighting can create new habitat for plants and animals, potentially reduce flood risks, and create new ‘green corridors’ through urban areas. A good example is the highly successful restoration of the Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul, South Korea.
Benefits of Daylighting Rivers
According to Adam Broadhead, who has created a daylighting website to map deculverting projects around the world, “Buried watercourses receive no sunlight, and so can be ecological deserts to life in the water and around the river banks (fish, birds, insects, plants, mammals). The darkness and other modifications to the channel often prevent passage of fish just like weirs do. Opening them back up can bring back all of this ecology, when done properly.
“Daylighted watercourses also have less of a flood risk due to underground blockages or collapse and it is easier to spot and tackle sources of pollution when you can see the water. People can see and enjoy the wildlife that daylighted streams support, with knock-on positive effects for health and well-being, education and recreation. Open watercourses can help to reduce the urban heat island effect and can (and are) being used to drive regeneration in downtown areas.”[v]
Freed River Case Studies
In Zurich, daylighting is actually enshrined in law. Known as the “Bachkonzept” or the “stream concept”, urban river restoration has been common practice in Switzerland’s largest city for 30 years. Urban rivers have been daylighted and integrated into Zurich in all manner of ways, such as complementing the local architecture. [vi]
The poster child of all daylighting projects is Seoul’s Cheonggyecheon River, completed in 2005. A brainwave of then-mayor and future president Lee Myung-bak, the project removed roads, buildings and virtually anything in its path to create an artificial waterway that joined up with the underground river at a cost of $900m (£615m). The 3.6 mile-long water corridor now acts as a major flood-relief channel and draws more than 60,000 visitors each day, transforming an area of Seoul previously renowned for crime. [vii]
In Auckland, more than 180 metres of underground piping and 5,000 cubic metres of natural clay were removed to daylight the Fairburn and Parahiku reserve streams in 2014. It was part of an ambitious scheme to provide both better flood water protections and restore the rivers to a more natural state to support the many migratory fish species in New Zealand. “We have these seasonal species which need these pockets of upstream habitat to live in, and then they go back out to sea and spawn,” says Tom Mansell, stormwater project engineer at Auckland council.[viii]
More recently in the US, $19m was invested to daylight the Saw Mill river in downtown Yonkers, New York. The aim was to regenerate the area and bring back habitat for a range of species including muskrats and snapping turtles.[ix]
Pilot Project for Daylighting La Bievre
Today, the Bievre forms a rainwater system, becoming an alternative means of transportation for wastewater when the sewers are out of action.
Studies in the 2000s were undertake to identify opportunities to daylight portions of the Bievre.
In 2002, the Communaut d’agglomeration du Val de Bievre (Val de Bievre Combined District Council) carried out a pilot project in the Parc des Paris in Fresnes, a three-hectare area that remained undeveloped. Retaining the former riverbed, a meandering stretch of water was created to encourage the development of aquatic life. Aquatic and semi-aquatic species were introduced in several areas. At the same time, over twenty direct wastewater connections to the Bievre were eliminated.[x]
The resulting enriched biodiversity — from ducks and other species of birds, to fish, amphibians and several aquatic insect species — has been very encouraging. Given the small stretch of daylighting, the ecosystem recovery is limited. Although improved, the water quality remains mediocre, however local residents can now enjoy the newly rediscovered riverside.
How can Earth Law Help
Through this initiative and others, Earth Law Center intends to lay the groundwork for a significant shift in how the law addresses questions of natural resources and environmental integrity. Changes that recognize the inherent rights of species and ecosystems will create more effective and durable mechanisms for protecting the natural world.
Beginning with one river and extending locally creates both community commitment to the environment and governmental protections that span jurisdictions and support a cleaner and healthier environment.
Victories at the local level also build interest and a sense of momentum about our work. As time goes by and more local governments grant rights to local ecosystems, the idea gains political credibility and a groundswell of support that can translate into motion at regional and national levels.
Victories everywhere help build international norms, and the political will for collective solutions to global problems. Personhood for rivers has already been recognized in New Zealand, India, and Colombia. Nature’s inherent rights are recognized in the countries of Bolivia and Ecuador as well as Mexico City and over 30 municipalities in the US.
Now, imagine how it would be if La Bievre had rights. What would be different if it could stand up for its legal rights in a court of law? Rights would include the right to flow; the right to perform essential functions within its ecosystem; the right to be free from pollution; the right to feed and be fed by sustainable aquifers; the right to native biodiversity; and the right to restoration.[xi]
If La Bievre had full legal rights, then any unsustainable exploitation that would impair those rights could be challenged. The river itself would have standing in a court of law. With recognition of its rights in the courts, the river would be considered a legal entity, with the ability to defend those rights. In practice, humans would have to stand in a court of law to enforce such rights on behalf of the river, acting as legal guardians – a model that is already familiar to lawyers who represent children, some disabled persons, and so forth. This model would in turn empower local communities, environmental groups, and others seeking to support the rights of La Bievre.
Take Action Today to Help Restore La Bievre
Act today and join the growing global movement of Earth Law by:
Sign the petition here
Contact ELC if you want to work on your own river rights campaign
More about Notre Affaire à Tous
Anchored in the struggle for the preservation of nature, the association works to establish climate justice. Its actions must be able to cope with climate change, nuclear disaster, disappearance of resources, etc. To achieve our goals, we chose to act in the legal field, which allows to influence lifestyles and government. The main objective of Our affair for all is to enforce and improve the existing law , especially that of the environment. We thus seek to establish, through case law and citizen mobilization, an effective and objective responsibility of the human being vis-à-vis nature.
[xi] Universal Declaration of River Rights at https://www.earthlawcenter.org/river-rights/