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From asset to threat: trajectory of sediment on the Rhône River

Abstract

Sediment is physical matter and, as such, is usually studied in the physical and natural sciences, such as chemistry, geomorphology, or hydraulics and hydrology. However, sediment is also deeply embedded in society and politics. Sediment flows are affected by river transformation and, in turn, affect river management. This article highlights the changing ways in which society has considered sediment in the Rhône River (France). In the early-modern historical period (16th–18th c.) sediment was generally considered a blessing. However, the contemporary evolution of the Rhône’s industrialisation, river engineering, and governance has challenged this perspective. Today sediment is more likely to be viewed as a threat. The concept of the hydrosocial cycle is a useful framework within which to describe the variety of ways societies have understood river sediment. The variation is caused by, and in turn affects, the meaning and representation of sediment, the structure of land and water governance, the nature of sedimentary and water resources, and the materiality of sediment and water, mediated by technology. This article aims to open the issue of sediment to the social sciences through a dialogue between history, human geography, and political science.

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Notes

  1. Authors’ translation.

  2. A capacitor is an electrical component that stores energy.

  3. Authors’ translation.

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Acknowledgements

This research was generously supported by two research projects funded by the French National Research Agency (ANR): The FluidGov project (Towards ‘fluid’ governance: hydrosocial analysis of flood paradigms and management practices in Rhone and Ganges basins (India, France and Switzerland): ANR-18-EQUI-0001) and the French programme ‘Investissements d’Avenir’ (ANR-11-LABX-0010), managed by the ANR, supported by the OHM Vallée du Rhône and part of a programme of Rhône Basin Long-Term Ecosystem Research (LTER, ZABR). The authors are grateful for insights gleaned at a seminar in Lyon in 2018 (‘Dams, Sediment Discontinuity, and Management Responses in Mediterranean River Basins’) and a workshop in Berkeley in 2019 (The Social Life of the Sediment Balance’). The authors would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their constructive insights, Carole Barthélémy for her comments on a previous version of this paper, and Fanny Arnaud who collected historical maps.

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Guerrin, J., Comby, E. & Morera, R. From asset to threat: trajectory of sediment on the Rhône River. Water Hist 13, 75–94 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12685-021-00276-6

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Keywords

  • Sediment
  • Rhône
  • Hydropolitics
  • Perception
  • Hydrosocial cycle