The Camargue A French place of natural wonders.
Localisation The Camargue is situated in the south of France between the two branches of the Rhône’s delta and the Mediterranean sea. There are three parts : The little Camargue ( on the west side of the Rhône ), the upper Camargue ( between the two branches, and the plan du Bourg ( on the east side of the river ). There are also lots of ponds and lakes.
The Camargue’s ecosystem The ecosystem presents a vegetation composed of salicornia, plants who support salty water, rice fieldland, salt exploitation and the Camargue is also a domain of horses’ and bulls’ farming. The yearly evaporation is more important than the rainy contribution, the river gives the difference so that the region is not burned by the salt. The alluvium soil in the Rhône delta is excellent for crops but must be prepared and maintained. The land had to be drained and needed to be protected by dykes. As an economic, biological and cultural ressource, water is of paramount importance to the delta. It is also an ongoing cause of friction between farmers, stock breeders, fishermen, salt producers, reed harvesters, managers of protected natural environements, hunters, bathers and, of course local residents.
Salt ponds Salt production in the Camargue began in antiquity, by both the Greeks and the Romans, and continued through the Middle Ages. Salt was transported along the Mediterranean coast and then inland on the salt roads « Routes du sel ». Rice fields Rice cultivation is done on three hectare plots that are submerged from April to September, and harvested during September and October. Over 30 thousand hectares of rice were grown in the early sixties, 10 thousand hectares today.
Irrigation system Irrigation began to develop in the Camargue as early as the 16th century, using sections of the river that had been cut off as a result of changes in its course, but also the force of gravity. However it was the development of vineyards that led to the introduction of active irrigation, using water from the Rhône. Today, 153 pumps installed along the two mains branches of the river supply water to a network of several hundred kilometres of channels. Two thirds of the system are under collective management and one third is managed by individual landowners. The volume of water involved is equal to that of the annual average rainfall.
Drainage system The massive introduction of fresh water into the delta after the construction of the dyke system raised the question of draining off surpluses. Drainage has been a problem since the 16th century, but it was only at the end of the 19th century that the network was generalised, and a proper management system set up. Water was initially drained into the Vaccarès étang by gravity, but with the extension of rice production in the 1950s, and the increasing volumes of water that had to be dealt with, the ponds filled up. Drainage became more difficult making it necessary to pump 2 millions m 3 of water each year into the Rhône or the Mediterranean sea.
Three contentious issues concerning water. Conflicts between water users can take one of these three forms: *Water quality: The essential question is the one of salinity. Fresh water is needed for agriculture, somewhat briny water for certain natural environment, and highly saline water for salt production. But the chemical and biological quality of the water is also an issue. For exemple agricultural fertilisers and pesticides, and massive irrigation using water of only average quality from the Rhône, are a subject of concern as regards the production of natural environment. *The seasonal nature of water requirements: The largest consumers, namely the rice and salt producers, need water in the spring and summer. They practise an « inverted ideology », compared to the natural state of affairs, and this is not wholly conducive to the conservation of some of the Camargue’s most emblematic animal and plant species. But the water needs of other users may also, in some cases, be divergent. *Water levels: The optimal water level is different for different activities ( fishing, hunting… ). Hence the question: what water levels, or variations in level, can win general acceptance ?
The sea dyke- some profound implications. When the sea Dyke was built, in 1859, it was equipped with a system of « pertuis » , or sluice gates, for exchanges between sea and land. The pertuis of La Fourcade and Rousty are still in operation, whereas the one of La Comtesse has silted up. The pertuis’ function is to ajust water levels and salinity over thousands of hectares, notably in the Vaccares etang and the lower ponds. The effect of opening a sluice gate depends on the water level and the direction of the wind: - with high level of water in the ponds, and a north wind, water drains away from the delta towards the sea.-with a high sea level and a south wind the ponds fill up and become more saline.
Why is this natural heritage so exeptionnal ? The Rhône is the only river in France which has a delta; and this delta is the second largest in the Mediterranean basin. It comprises different types of environment, including salt plains, lagoons and ponds, which are encountred on this scale in few other places around Europe, and are home to numerous rare plant and animal species. The delta is on the route of the great north-south migrations, and provides a resting and feeding site for large numbers of birds. Its mild winter temperature is also attractive, especially for water birds, 150,000 of which spend the season there.
How is nature protected ? The extent to which nature is protected in the Rhône delta varies from one area to another, according to the legislative framework. Some natural environment are covered by the law, some by international conventions; and some are the responsabilities of landowners or local authorities. Quite a lot of land is farmed in an environmentally-responsible way, on a contract basis, notably with state-backed and grazing contracts. The majority of conservation measures focus on the heart of the delta. This type of measure has been extended over the last twenty years, through a policy of land purchase by bodies such as the conseil general of the Gard and the one of the Bouche-du-Rhône.