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In just under 110 days, France, and Paris in particular, will be in the spotlight as the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games get underway.
And in just over 110 days’ time, many of the best athletes in their disciplines will be throwing themselves into the Seine in various water sports events.
While many of them are primarily focused on winning a medal and simply thinking about fulfilling their greatest athletic dream, the fact remains that all of them risk having to compete in the polluted waters of the Seine.
Concerned about their health, the Surfrider association has decided to react and has published an open letter to the stakeholders involved in the organisation of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games and the 2025 bathing plan.

Bathing water quality and user health: one of Surfrider’s major battles

Surfrider Foundation has been closely monitoring the quality of bathing and recreational waters (paddleboarding, freestyle swimming, etc.) for over 20 years, and is particularly concerned about this issue.
The association is also a member of the European Commission’s Expert Group on the Bathing Water Directive.

A large number of people are working on this issue in-house, setting up annual environmental and health monitoring programmes to better characterise the quality of recreational surface waters. The results obtained provide the advocacy team with particularly useful information to support the requests made to political decision-makers regarding the need for an ambitious revision of the European Bathing Water Directive.

The Seine, a particularly polluted spot

Surfrider is currently the only association working on water quality and user health at European level. For over 6 months, it has been taking regular samples from the Seine to monitor the bacteriological quality of the water. Bi-monthly samples are taken from the Pont de l’Alma and the Pont Alexandre III, the section of the river where the triathlon, marathon swimming and paratriathlon events will be held. In all, over 14 samples were taken and sent to the laboratory for analysis.

These samples enabled the association to determine the concentrations of E. coli and enterococci, intestinal bacteria and formidable indicators of pollution of faecal origin. Of the 14 samples taken, whether after heavy rain or on a sunny day, only 1 enabled our team to conclude that the quality of the water in the Seine at this particular point was even satisfactory.
In accordance with the directive mentioned above, these results are based on only 2 types of bacteria. Other types of pollution (chemical, biological, etc.) are not taken into account in the directive’s definition of bathing water quality.

It is therefore clear that the athletes who will be taking part in the Olympic and Paralympic events planned for the Seine will be swimming in polluted water and taking significant risks to their health. Just like the courageous people who will be taking the opportunity to cool off in the river waters of Paris in the summer of 2025, as announced as part of the Paris City Council’s Bathing Plan.

What progress has been made on projects to make the Seine swimmable?

In October 2023, Surfrider shared with Paris City Council the results of its bacteriological analyses of the Seine. The association also offered the teams of the various stakeholders constructive and concerted support in order to guarantee good quality water for athletes and future bathers. On this occasion, the City of Paris presented the actions undertaken or planned to reduce water pollution and guarantee a bathable Seine.

The projects mentioned by the City of Paris teams included :
– the construction of a 50,000m3 rainwater storage basin at Austerlitz
– connecting boats and public facilities along the Seine to the sewerage system
– connecting or resolving the problems associated with the poor connections in many of the city’s homes.

Unfortunately, to date, there has been no indication from the parties involved in the plan to rehabilitate the Seine, the partners or the competent authorities as to whether these actions will be properly implemented.
With just a few weeks to go to the trials, we are becoming increasingly concerned about meeting the deadlines for commissioning the works and bringing them into compliance. As are those linked to the lack of a plan B (in the event of poor test results) that would enable the Olympic and Paralympic events to go ahead without any risk to the teams.

We are therefore genuinely concerned about the health of athletes and are waiting for information from the city of Paris and the Île de France region that will give us a clear picture of the situation.

We have high hopes for these projects, as they represent a fantastic opportunity for urban bathing. However, at this stage, we remain sceptical for a number of reasons..:
– the concentrations of enterococci and E. coli found in our samples are well above the legislative thresholds in force for freshwater bathing waters
– we are not certain that the Austerlitz structure alone is the answer to the Seine’s problems
– the Seine has a large catchment area and rehabilitation work needs to be undertaken all along the river
– curative approaches cannot solve all the problems

The measures and work already undertaken by the city to make the river swimmable are, in our view, a first step. However, we remain convinced that a multi-sectoral approach (desilting, systematic connection, revegetation, etc.) will provide a lasting response to the challenges of restoring the quality of the water in the Seine, so that one day this urban river will be “swimmable” for all.

Closing the quays of the Seine = impossible to collect water

While we have been able to monitor the quality of the water in the Seine in great detail up until now, this will unfortunately no longer be possible in a few weeks’ time due to the closure of the quays. It will therefore be impossible for the Surfrider team to continue taking samples.

Through our open letter, we are asking that we be allowed access to the sampling sites for the duration of the Paris Olympics. This would enable us to continue monitoring the quality of the water in the Seine and thus ensure the health of the athletes.

We are convinced that the challenges of urban bathing are the challenges of tomorrow.
However, in the case of the Seine, we believe there is still a great deal to be done.
This is why we continue to advocate concerted and transparent action, which is crucial to the future of bathing in urban rivers. This is vital to ensure that urban rivers, such as the Seine, become healthy and welcoming spaces for all.