The Norman village is betting on letting the rising sea in
Sea level is expected to rise one meter by 2100, a direct consequence of global warming. This will be a key topic at the UN COP26 environmental summit, which begins in Glasgow on Sunday. French organizations and communities are already hard at work to find solutions to the imminent floods. The French village of Quiberville-sur-Mer in Normandy took an unconventional approach: letting the sea in instead of building walls to prevent it from entering.
Houses perched on chalk cliffs facing the English Channel overlook the waves crashing noisily on a pebble beach. The fields, crisscrossed by the Saâne river, stretch as far as the eye can see in this town in northern Normandy. The small village of Quiberville, which has 2,400 inhabitants in summer and barely 550 in winter, is teeming with life on a late October morning. Local residents and tourists alike are on the beach enjoying a beautiful fall day. With the sun, the tourists and the rolling fields, it’s easy to forget the sword of Damocles hanging over this small community: the rising sea.
If global warming continues on its current path, sea level could rise up to one meter by 2100, according to the latest forecasts from UN climate experts. This would profoundly transform the French coastline – and Quiberville is on the front line.
“The city is already at risk, both from flooding from the sea and from flooding from the Saâne on the land side. We also have the problem of cliff erosion,” said Stéphane Costa, professor at the ‘University of Caen which has studied coastal erosion. in Normandy for decades, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
“This will be further exacerbated by global warming. Not only will sea level rise increase the risk of flooding, but it will also prevent the river from drying up. At the same time, more waves will hit the bottom of the sea. cliffs and will accelerate erosion, “he explained.” High tides and storms will also increase in number and intensity. “
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An original project
In an attempt to work with the sea rather than against it, Quiberville is at the center of a unique project in France. Instead of erecting barriers or walls to protect themselves from the rising waves, the city decided to let the sea in. With the help of EU and French state funding, it turned to launched in a major reorganization which includes the relocation of certain houses in an attempt to adapt to the reality of living with global warming.
The village was once protected by a large road which served as a dike between the beach and the land with the river passing through a “nozzle”, a sort of narrow funnel, to reach the sea. The chalk cliffs bottoms have been reinforced. with concrete for several meters as protection.
From 2025, the nozzle will be replaced by a wide bridge. This will make it easier for the river to reach the sea and, above all, for the sea to flow into the land at high tide.
One of the main objectives of this measure is to reduce flooding. “This new canal will increase the flow of the river at low tide and therefore limit the risk of flooding,” Régis Leymarie, deputy director of the Conservatoire du Littoral group behind the project, told FRANCE 24. “In the other direction, the sea will be able to penetrate the land in a controlled manner.”
The second objective is that “the creation of points of contact between fresh water and sea water allows an explosion of biodiversity,” said Leymarie. “This will restore spawning grounds for fish and nursery areas for birds.”
Since 2017, the Conservatoire du Littoral – a public body dedicated to the protection of coastal areas and the banks of lakes – has been working on “flexible coastal management” on 10 different sites in France, with projects aimed at returning reclaimed land to sea. In Lancieux Bay in Brittany, for example, rather than repairing a dike, the group aims to let water penetrate into agricultural polders to create salt meadows.
From “resistance” to “adaptation”
The new project marks a complete political turn for the longtime mayor of Quiberville, Jean-François Bloc. Since he became mayor 34 years ago, Bloc had only one word in mind when people spoke to him about the rising waters: “Concrete”.
“It was always concrete, concrete and more concrete, to better resist,” he told FRANCE 24. But as the weather changed, so did his approach. “It took a while, but I finally realized that we won’t be able to go on like we were forever.
Son of a local butcher, Bloc has repeatedly witnessed the fragility of existing systems in the area. In 1977, a storm coinciding with a very high tide severely damaged the dike. Twenty-two years later, it was the turn of the Saâne to overflow, swollen by heavy rains which caused significant flooding in 1999.
“I had to help people get out of their windows and deliver food to people in a canoe,” he recalls. Faded posters that show how high the water level reached during these floods are still displayed on various buildings in the city.
“Whenever there is a storm, we rebuild and we strengthen it,” Bloc said. “But as the water rises and the storms get stronger and stronger due to global warming, it is clear that this is no longer enough.”
As you walk along the sea wall, there are clear signs to confirm the conclusion of Bloc. In one place, a boulder was forced off its axis. “He was pushed by the waves during high tides,” said the mayor. A little further on, cracks appeared on the road. “I finally accepted all of this. We must no longer resist, we must accept the reality of this rising sea level and adapt to it,” he said.
“With the rise in water levels predicted by scientists, a retreat inland will be inevitable,” Costa admitted. “By protecting the coastline, we only save a little time. “
Quiberville’s project is innovative and makes sense, according to Costa. “This shows that by anticipating, we can set up intelligent and attractive projects for the reorganization of the territory,” he said.
The camping dilemma
A first step is to move a municipal campsite located a few steps from the sea, just behind the dike. “In 1999, right after we finished renovating it, it was completely destroyed. The water reached 1.6 meters – the trailers were floating,” Bloc said. The campsite will be completely dismantled by 2024 and a new one will be built 700 meters higher on the cliffs of Quiberville.
Although he is convinced that it is the right thing to do, the mayor does not hide his concern. “This campsite is a very important part of our livelihood, it is one of our main sources of income and our main economic activity. It alone represents eight jobs. It is no small feat for one. village like ours, ”he explained. “Some people have been coming to the campsite for over 50 years. Obviously, for them, it is a difficult decision to accept.
While discussing the site of the future campsite, Bloc manages to smile. “But it is also an opportunity to renew itself. The new campsite will be more modern, more geared towards motorhomes. There will be mobile homes, a swimming pool,” he said.
At the top of the white chalk cliffs of Quiberville, the houses are also threatened by erosion. When asked about this problem, Bloc is much more defeatist. “We can do whatever we want, we won’t be able to do much more than slow the process down,” he said sadly.
“Erosion eats away about 40 centimeters of cliffs each year,” Costa explained. “Below, the waves hit the cliff and weaken it. At the top, it is the pressure of urbanization and the infiltration of rainwater that worry.
Bloc has already had to ask three families to leave their homes for safety reasons; the last time in July 2020. “Today when someone comes to me for a purchase project on the cliff, I am not lying. I am warning buyers that they will only be able to see a beautiful sunset. the next 20 or 30 years. “
In total, around forty houses in the department are at risk of collapsing under the pressure of erosion, according to 2020 estimates from the Center for Studies and Expertise on Risks, the Environment, Mobility and Urban Planning ( Cerema) and the Departmental Directorate of Seine-Maritime. Department of Territories and the Sea (DDTM).
What will Quiberville look like in 20, 30 or 50 years? The cliffs will have receded considerably but below will be “a beautiful natural area, where many tourists will come for a walk to observe migratory birds and enjoy the sea,” Leymarie said optimistically.
This article has been translated from the original into French.