Flamingos in front of shimmering pink water, horses galloping along the sea, grass and lakes as far as the eye can see: the Camargue is known for its wild and breathtaking nature. But the paradise in southern France is under threat. Climate change is leaving salty soil in the alluvial plain, and rising sea levels are threatening to engulf ever larger parts of the flat coast and eventually bury the Camargue entirely.
"The Camargue, like all deltas, is really on the front lines of climate change," says Jean Jalbert, director of the Tour du Valat research center in the Camargue. There has been no significant amount of precipitation for about ten years, and the little water that has fallen has evaporated more quickly at high temperatures. The Rhône, which runs through the delta, also carries less water, as Jalbert explains. As the glacial ice that feeds the river in the French and Swiss Alps recedes, the river will become even weaker in the long term.
jobs at risk
All of this means that the soil and water in the Camargue are becoming increasingly salty. Salty water from lower layers rises. Seawater penetrates further upstream inland. While an estimated one and a half million tons of salt were in the lagoons of the Camargue by 2016, today it is said to be around four million tons, says Jalbert.
This has an impact on nature, but also on agriculture. A large part of the rice grown in France comes from the Camargue, around 2000 jobs depend on the industry. Wine is also produced here. A good ten years ago, Jalbert and his team lost a rice crop on the Domaine du Petit Saint-Jean estate because the water pumped was too salty. "What was an accident a short time ago threatens to become the norm in the coming years," says the agricultural engineer.
The salty soil also causes problems for bull farmer Frédéric Raynaud. Grasses on his pasture are dying, he told TV5 Monde. The Chamber of Agriculture of the Occitania region, in which part of the Camargue is located, fears that some crops, such as wine, will have to be completely abandoned in some places in the future because of the salt.
In the long term, however, the biggest risk for the Camargue, where 70 percent of the country is less than a meter above sea level, is rising sea levels. Bull farmer Raynaud still had over 1000 hectares a good 50 years ago. Today he estimates his land at only 850 to 900 hectares.
"We will lose (land)"
In the delta, the sea carries sand away from the coast in some places and deposits it in other places. However, as sea levels rise, it's no longer a zero-sum game, as researcher Jalbert explains. "We will lose (country)." The population must also be prepared for severe flooding.
"There is no doubt in my mind that one day the Camargue will be underwater" - probably not in this century, but maybe in a century or two, Jalbert estimates. "In any case, as the decades go by, it will become increasingly difficult to hold the land. You will have to adapt, leave parts to the sea, hold other parts."
According to Jalbert, the small town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which is directly on the coast, will have to be relocated sooner or later, unless you want to make a walled island out of it. Fear of the consequences of climate change has not been felt much among the residents of the town. A pensioner calmly explains on a boat that people have been saying since he was born that the Camargue will disappear.
One of Napoleon's nephews may also have had this attitude to thank for. After devastating floods in 1856, Napoleon III. among other things, the Camargue and caused France to better protect against invading water. According to Jalbert, the idea of standing up to the water, of wanting to win against it, has prevailed in the Camargue ever since.
The fact that the delta is dynamic has been lost sight of. Climate change is forcing you to take a different look. However, adjustment is possible, Jalbert is convinced, at least with regard to agricultural products. Bull owner Raynaud is more skeptical and has already looked elsewhere for reasons, as he told broadcaster TF1. To maybe someday leave his country right on the coast. "We don't feel like it, but maybe the sea will force us to."