City or river basin: which scale is effective to reach the objectives set up by France in her national strategy?

By Nicolas Bauduceau and Julien Jadot

In 2012, in parallel to the transposition of the European Flood Directive, France decided to adopt a national strategy, currently under process of validation. It defines 3 main objectives: 1) increase the security of people living in flood prone areas, 2) stabilize at short term and reduce at medium term flood damages, and 3) reduce significantly the time to return to the normal situation after flood.

Long before this, in the 1960’s France structured the water environment and water management, including flood management, based on the scale of a river basin. However, due to the consequences of the last flood events and to difficulties like integrating flood aspects in urbanization projects, people are starting to question this choice of scale and another framework, at another scale, is proposed – one based on economic, social and administrative aspects that we will transcribe here as “city scale”.

So which scale, river basin or city, is the most suitable for flood risk management?

CEPRI Nicolas bis River and city basin, competitive or complementary approaches?

In the last decades, flood management at the scale of the river basin became the rule at both national and international scale, especially when it comes to the management of transnational basins. However since a few years, this scale of the river basin is regularly questioned because it is not adapted to coastal logics, it is also considered as not fully relevant for the analysis of flood impacts, which can affect areas wider than just the river basin, strategies using protection measures are called into question and generate distrust, and logics of solidarities between upstream and downstream are failing to be sustainable in the long term due to the weakness of the governance structures ensuring this solidarity.

In addition,, managing flood risk is not only a matter of avoiding running water to overflow. Spatial planning, responsible for increased exposition and vulnerability of territories, crisis management, but also public information are managed at the scale of cities. This is linked to the French national strategy, currently under process of validation.

River basins and cities appear to be two complementary scales of flood risk management regarding the strategies they may activate. However it seems that, locally, the dominant logic is the logic of competition between the strategies that could be implemented by these two scales. This is weakening the idea of integrated flood risk management.


Transposition of European Flood Directive shakes the logic of management at the river basin scale

In France, the implementation of the European Flood Directive, ongoing since 2010, does not make clear choices regarding the relevant scale for risk management. It is clearly established that flood risk managements plans will be elaborated in 2015, at the scale of main French hydrologic basins and that the basin establishments (EPTB) will “ensure at the scale of their hydrologic basin or sub-basin”. Many times though, the text of law considers, for all the consultation phases, local authorities in charge of land management and planning as “first importance” stakeholders. The Areas with Potential Significant Flood Risk (APSR) are determined at the scale of urban territories and not of the river basin. Finally there is no mention made regarding the possible interest of setting up local strategies[1] at river basin scale. Indeed, we see local strategies emerging on territories not necessarily linked with river basin. Thus the text of the French law transposing the Floods Directive is not decisive regarding the choice of scale of flood risk management.

CEPRI Julien A wavering national strategy continues to induce doubt

The national strategy for flood risks management, in the process of final validation by the ministry, keeps having doubts about the relevant scale of management. It stresses the importance of upstream and downstream solidarity, not only when it comes to protecting flood storage areas, but also with respect to reducing damages. On the other hand, it enhances cooperation between the different scales of action, notably in its principle of “synergies and complementarities of public policies”: “Management of flood risks must associate efficiently both actions of vulnerability reduction and protection actions, at the scale of basin of risk extended to river basin for rivers flooding and extended to hydrosedimentary cells for marine submersion, while looking at the balance between rural and urbanised territories. “But it remains relatively cautious regarding the relevant scale for managing the future local strategies, leaving the choice to the local level.

By not deciding, the national flood risks strategy emphasizes the questions raised by the European Flood Directive regarding the appropriate scale for flood risk management. This weakens the management at the scale of river basin more and more.


GEMAPI: a new law inducing a shift

In January 2014, a new law on modernization of the territorial public action and for the affirmation of the metropolis (law MAPAM) established a new competence: “management of aquatic environment and flood prevention” (GEMAPI). From 2016 onwards, this competence will be in the hands of the intercommunal cooperation structures/organisations acting at the scale of the “city” (in France this local authorities are gathered under the name of EPCI). These EPCI, who currently don’t have any obligation to act in the field of flood risk management, are becoming major stakeholders of the main financial axe of flood management policy: flood defence. Even if the EPCI have the possibility to transfer this competence to river basin management structures, the GEMAPI probably just created a shift toward a flood risk management at the scale of “cities”.


What does the future hold for the management of the flood risk on our territories?

The establishment of the GEMAPI competence is an important institutional evolution. It is shown by the tumult it generates under flood risk management stakeholders. By dedicating the GEMAPI competence to cities and intercommunal cooperation organisations, the MAPAM Law perturbs currently involved actors, obliges them to restructure themselves, and sometimes, as it is the case for the inter-department basin structures that have until 2018 to find a new way to organise themselves, will make them disappear. GEMAPI will eventually have a significant impact on the management of flood prone areas. What will happen in 10-15 years?


In conclusion

Considering the long term, we foresee threats for the achievement of the national strategy objectives due to the disruption of existing dynamics. But there is still some hope to see an improvement as the laws and the strategy, by not deciding, keep room for adaptation at the different territory scales.

The STAR-FLOOD project, by presenting the good practices of various areas in Europe will bring interesting elements regarding the division of responsibilities or the reflection on the adapted scale for flood risk management.


[1] The local strategies are plans for flood management made at the scale of the APSR, in coherence with the flood risk management plans made at the main river basin scale.