Lack of water puts river transport in difficulty

In the memory of boatmen and river owners, we have rarely experienced such a difficult situation on certain canals in France since 1976, the year of the “great drought”. That of summer 2022 reduced the flow of rivers and lowered the water line, affecting the transport of goods and river tourism in certain French regions, in particular the North-East. But despite the persistence of the rain deficit, the situation remains stable, according to Voies navigables de France (VNF).

“Currently, 591 kilometers of canals had to be closed, less than 10% of the 6,700 kilometers we manage”, underlines Cécileavezard, Rhône-Saône territorial director of the public establishment. If we consider only the narrow-gauge canals with a dual purpose of transport and tourism, the percentage reaches 15%. “The situation is very different depending on the region”, she notes. The Champagne-Bourgogne, Saône-Marne, Canal des Vosges, Canal de Bourgogne, Canal de la Meuse, Marne-Rhine links (as far as Nancy) had to be closed, as well as part of the Moselle. As in the Langres region (Haute-Marne), it is often a question of giving priority to the supply of drinking water.

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If the North-East is more affected, it is because the supply of the canals connecting rivers and rivers is fragile and could not be ensured by natural waterways. The capacity of the fifty dam-reservoirs used to regulate their level has also dropped. This sometimes forces shippers to limit the carrying capacity of boats to one third so as not to hit the bottom. Other areas have also given priority to tourist activity, which is crucial in this season. “VNF is managing the situation with river tourism operators and anticipating that boats are moved to areas where the water level is good”explains Avezard.


France has, according to her, a “extremely resilient network”, which allows the continuation of all economic uses of water: transport, electricity production, crop irrigation and tourism. Much less strategic than in Germany, transport on the main roads equipped with dams-reservoirs (Rhône, Seine, Oise, Saône, Yonne, etc.), making it possible to slow down the flow towards the sea, has not been greatly disturbed.

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Without creating new dams-reservoirs, only 43% filled at the moment, the retention capacity could increase from 165 million cubic meters to 190 million cubic meters, according to VNF, which is negotiating with local authorities. , project co-financiers. “The network is fluid and not saturated, explains Thierry Guimbaud, Managing Director of VNF. It could accommodate up to four times more traffic on certain axes, such as the Seine and the Rhône. »

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