In Hames-Boucres (Pas-de-Calais), the ditches are still overflowing. The fields look like vast swamps while a farmer still wades in his farmhouse. If the torrential rains stopped after ten interminable days in November, the water struggles to flow into these trenches supposed to drain the overflow. It clings to this land, occupied ten centuries ago by the sea and since reclaimed by man thanks to watering holes. This system of dikes and canals typical of the region collects rainwater inland using ditches, then discharges it into the sea through a set of locks.
The ingenious network was designed in a sparsely populated peasant country. But since then, industrial cities have grown potatoes or beets instead, on soils that have become impermeable. Added to these changes is climate change. In the event of heavy flooding, the 1,600 kilometer network putting nearly 430,000 inhabitants on dry land is no longer able to discharge excess water towards the mouth of the North Sea.
The flood which fell in recent days on the Calais-Dunkerque-Saint-Omer triangle revealed the limits of these famous wateringues. Nearly 6,000 homes were flooded, as well as hundreds of businesses and farms. Due to a lack of regular maintenance and properly sized drainage systems, the network is no longer able to dry up this immense area (polder) comprising municipalities located below sea level. Last September, a report from the Regional Chamber of accounts had reported “the fragility of the hydraulic system”, based on two studies, one of which was carried out in 2008. But local actors are struggling to mobilize the necessary funds. Contributions from residents finance the maintenance of the ditches, the funds of the Intermunicipal Waterworks Institution that of the locks.
A network to strengthen
“We feel neglected,” sighs Raphaël Delamaëre, an inexhaustible farmer who has just retired and president of the fourth section of wateringues – 43 km of network. Another resident adds: “The management of this overflow of water is lamentable and the population is paying heavily for the consequences!”
In mid-November, Raphaël Delamaëre demonstrated with other operators to ask for a contribution from the State. Emmanuel Macron promised aid of 50 million euros to the victims of Pas-de-Calais. Will part of it be allocated to watering stations? “Strengthening the system requires more resources and we have to think carefully, because it means eating away at agricultural plots,” analyzes Arnaud Gauthier, professor at the Civil Engineering and Geo-environment laboratory at the University of Lille. With climate change, the intensity of rainfall is expected to increase by 20% to 40% by 2050. Raphaël Delamaëre has just sold his Hames-Boucres farm, passed down in his family for five generations, to his children. Hoping the story won’t end there.