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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 17:09 GMT
Paris flood warning
Floods in Paris (AP)
Flooding in Paris in March last year
By Rory Mulholland in Paris

The French capital faces a repeat of the great flood of 1910 that would leave hundreds of thousands without electricity and phones, bring economic life to a standstill, and cost billions of euros in damage.

An official report said the cost of such a flood would be about 10 billion euros

Alain Rist, Paris area regional council
Environmental officials say there is a serious risk that the river Seine will burst its banks in Paris and surrounding areas this winter. Swathes of central Paris on both sides of the river could be submerged.

The national parliament, the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, the national library, train stations and the finance ministry could all be flooded. Seventy percent of the underground transport system would be paralysed.

The rising level of the Seine in the capital has already triggered a first low-urgency alert this winter. What worries the authorities is not the level itself, but the fact that it was achieved with relatively little rain. The soil is so saturated that there is little prospect of it absorbing any excess water.

'Record rainfall'

The Seine last burst its banks in 1910, when water levels rose to 8.72 metres, flooding large parts of the French capital for up to a fortnight.

Since then, four dams have been built in the Paris region. These help to lower the level of the Seine in the winter and to feed the river in the dry summer months. But the IIBRBS, a state institution in charge of the dams in the Seine basin, says that at best they could reduce the level of the Seine by a metre in the case of flooding.

"Of course, we don't know how much it will rain in the coming months," said Alain Rist, the Green Party vice-president of the Paris area regional council. "But we've had record rainfall over the last three years and the groundwater levels are already saturated.

"An official report said the cost of such a flood would be about 10 billion euros," Mr Rist told BBC News Online. "I think that's a conservative estimate. How, for example, can you calculate the economic impact of the metro not running for four months?"

The report on potential flooding, drawn up by the IIBRBS, said that the worst case scenario would leave a million Parisians without telephones, 200,000 without electricity, and 80,000 without gas. Economic life would be stifled, it concluded.

Metro measures

When the Green party's Dominique Voynet became environment minister, she called for existing plans for the prevention of floods in urban areas to be brought up to date. But Mr Rist criticises these plans for being too legalistic and providing no real action for crisis situations.

He praises some bodies such as the Parisian transport authorities, which have just completed a plan that took three years to draw up. This includes erecting dykes at 400 positions in the metro system as soon as the Seine reaches 7.10 metres at Austerlitz bridge in central Paris.

But Mr Rist says most, including the EDF, the state-run electricity provider, are unprepared to deal with the effects of severe flooding.

"The Grande Bibliotheque (national library), for example, says it has a pump system to deal with flooding," he says. "But the electricity is likely to be cut and the pump won't work. They say they have a generator, but that needs fuel and how will fuel tankers get to them with the streets flooded? These sorts of things haven't been taken into account."

He says the authorities should provide guidelines to private companies and individuals living in Paris on what to do if the city is flooded.

See also:

21 Mar 01 | Europe
In pictures: France hit by floods
26 Mar 01 | Europe
Hundreds flee French floods
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