Floods in Marseille: “There are mountains of waste everywhere, it’s a disaster”


MAINTENANCE – The heavy rains combined with the accumulated waste due to the garbage collectors’ strike have turned the Mediterranean coast into a dumping ground. A phenomenon that is nothing new in the Marseille city, explains Marseille biologist Isabelle Poitou.

Isabelle Poitou is director of the Marseille association MerTerre, biologist, doctor in urban planning and planning, and specialist in pollution by macro-waste.


The images are impressive and bear witness to a human and ecological disaster. Monday, October 4, the equivalent of two months of rain fell in a few hours in Marseille. Fearsome, bad weather flooded the streets of the Marseille city for several hours, carrying tons of waste in their path, which had not been removed because of the garbage collectors’ strike in the Marseille city. Most of them finished their race on the beaches and in the Mediterranean Sea.

Le Figaro.- The Nice hinterland last year, Marseille today… How to explain the floods at this time of year?

Isabelle Poitou.- Every year, it is the period of torrential rains in PACA. It is very common. Afterwards, the quantities of water are more and more important with climate change. In addition, the Mediterranean is warmer, so there is more evaporation, therefore more water in the air and therefore, obviously, more water falling. But it is very common in the fall to have heavy rains in the Southeast.

This time, there is an aggravating factor, with this waste which has been transported to the beach and may end up in the sea. What consequences for the environment?

The strike aggravated a frequent situation. In previous years, as soon as it rained very hard, we already had lots of garbage, which is thrown into the manholes by the inhabitants. The leaching of the streets takes this waste to the sea. This year, the strike has simply increased the amount of waste scattered everywhere. I have been on the beaches of Marseille since early this morning, there are mountains of rubbish everywhere, it’s impressive, it’s a disaster.

For decades, all this waste has ended up at sea, is not biodegradable and therefore will be there for a very long time. The sun will cut the macro-debris into small pieces and depending on their size, they will be eaten by different kinds of marine animals. But the more the waste breaks into pieces, the more it will be ingested by a large number of individuals, whether birds, turtles – which are also endangered in the Mediterranean because of that -, fish , molluscs, crustaceans, invertebrates… Plastic is found in almost every marine individual today.

Whose fault is it ?

I put the blame on all of society. Awareness of the seriousness of the polluting nature associated with our everyday objects is recent. Too recent. Scientists have not always been up to the task: twenty years ago, we still spoke of “nuisance to tourism” and not of “major pollution”. Pollution is molecules, substances, in volumes of air or water. Macro-waste and the concentration of molecules in volumes are not measured in the same way. It wasn’t until 2008, when we discovered plastic microparticles, that a consciousness finally emerged. Scientists realized it was measurable. And it is thanks to the characterization and quantification of this waste that this pollution can be considered like any other.

Thanks to the measure, we can define targeted action plans and we can define the human, financial and technical resources that must be put in place. Normally, it’s a 75,000 euros fine for heavy pollution in the marine environment. Responsibility is shared here, but I think that the public authorities must absolutely put the package together so that we are finally up to the environmental challenge.

SEE ALSO – Red vigilance: the streets of Marseille flooded after torrential rains

What can Marseille do, but also other large cities, to limit the impact of flooding?

We must support the city of Marseille, like the Metropolis. But all this must be prepared beforehand. It is absolutely necessary to rethink the cities with these new parameters of increasingly heavy torrential rains which will fall. It is a question of imagining the possibility for the water to evacuate, but also to anticipate, because the weather allows it. Two or three days before the onset of the rains, we can clean the rainwater systems, remove all the waste present, clean the waterways which are, for the most part, open sewers.

When we learn to read waste, we learn to make them tell where they came from, who consumed them and how far they have come. This makes it possible to help the public authorities to put in place preventive action plans, that is to say to carry out awareness-raising, education and training campaigns worthy of the name. But also curative campaigns: where do I clean, how do I prevent waste from going down to the sea, how do I clean my watershed before the rain hits?

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