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  • Writer's pictureRiver Riders

Meeting People Who Love Water, Seine 2018

Updated: Jan 12, 2021

Flowers from the garden of Element Terre, grown in their garden with the waters from the creek

Some reflections by Serap, June 6, 2018

We arrived at Lyon airport with our tandem bicycle on June 3rd to start our River Riding trip along the source of Seine River. First, we had to head towards the source of Seine... On our first day, we rode about 40 kms, since it was almost a late start at the end of a day. On our second day, we rode about 50 kms, and on our third day, we ended up riding 80 kms. So far, we have been following Rhone and Saone rivers against the current to reach to the source of Seine which we will then follow the river flowing west to reach the Atlantic Ocean.

Yesterday, we so much wanted to stay at Element Terre, which we had stayed during our previous bicycling trip. Element Terre is an amazing place to rest, run by owners with big hearts for earth (If I had to name a memorable place to stay that feels like home in France during our trip, I would undoubtedly choose Element Terre!). The name of the place has two meanings, one being “foundational” and other is being “Element Earth”. The name itself calls me to this wonderful place, with some expectations that they are doing good things for earth, and that is so true.

To me, it is so important to see how people live in harmony with nature, such as in Element Terre. I was very interested to know how they set up the property and inquired some of the permaculture principles they utilize. For example, the buildings are built with all-natural materials (wood and cob walls). They treat water with respect. Water is particularly well thought of in this establishment.

There is a section in the garden shaped as a crescent that welcomes a creek, and a side wall that was built out of natural rocks that reminds me stairs in an ancient amphitheater. The rocks and land together create a space for people to sit and watch the beauty of the creek. This little area invites birds, dragonflies, lilies, and small fish--the ones that we observed.

As I mentioned, water coming to the land is respected. There is a dry toilet for the residents. The water toilets are located in the guest house, and water is treated biologically on the land. How? Water first goes through a macerator, then is pumped to a gravel bed that has been planted with rushes (vertical filtration and aerobic bacterial treatment system). Later the seeping water goes down to another bed with plants which like water (such as mint). In this last bed, the horizontal treatment occurs. Water which is now clean! Water quality is analyzed to make sure that water is clean. The outflow then joins the creek that goes by the property. Bertrand is now thinking about how to invite that water back to the land to save water.

With people who care about water, the discussion always comes around water since it is our life - and we all have the same question: “what can I do for water to keep it clean?”. Today, I mentioned that I noticed some possible pollution in Rhone and Saone Rivers on the way from Lyon and wondered about the pollution levels in these rivers. Bertrand and I discussed about the creeks and rivers in the region. Since then, I have been in my room at Element Terre doing some internet search about pollution in rivers in Europe. What can we do to keep waters clean???

To answer that question, I first need to look at what goes in to the rivers. There are many pollutants and here I will mention two, human organic waste and phosphate laundry detergents as a start:

Human organic waste: Should human waste really be called waste? Many cultures use human organic excreta as fertilizer because of its rich nutrients. Should human waste really go into water then? Definitely not. Why is it so? At some point in history, water must have been identified to wash away human organic excrement (I know that this happened during Roman period and it may have been even earlier) and it must have stayed that way. In the old days, human organic excrement used to go into the soil and enrich the soil-still used in some cultures. Today, because water is available to be used in toilets, it either goes directly to the water sources with pipes, or treated in facilities before it is released into water resources. Many engineers and practitioners are working on finding solutions to keep waters clean and not wasted. For example, experts are working on dry toilets, compost toilets and looking at ways to deal with organic material. There is an amazing TEDx talk by Sasha Kramer that has touched my heart so deeply and the link is:

In Europe, there are regulations for treating human waste and controlling pollution. With the advanced technology, it seems like the pollution levels due to human excretion to water should be reduced. To me, the word “reduced” is not enough. My heart is beating for finding other solutions and I know that it is possible.

With respect to pollution, there can be couple of actions to be taken. For example, a strong political framework sets a foundation. Another action is that citizens, like you and me, raise consciousness and take action for what they use, what they choose. And civil society members act to tackle issues that need to be on the agenda. There are more actions to be taken, as in education, business practices, etc.

Laundry detergents with phosphate: A strong political framework really changes behaviors. Right now, in France, there are no plastic bags in grocery stores because they are banned. I use my bicycle helmet as a shopping basket and carry the goods outside of the store to our bicycle. People seem to carry their own bags into the stores. Behavior change happens quickly when there is political will and support. Same thing can happen with respect to changing behaviors about keeping water clean. One of the pollutants of water is phosphate in detergents. What can be done? After a problem is identified, one of the logical steps is that phosphate is removed from detergents and replaced with something else. With regulations in EU, non-phosphate based detergents have been introduced. Switzerland banned using phosphate detergents in 1986, says Olivier in the book, Rhone River Basin (Chapter 7). What is happening in the other European countries? In France? Something to think about.

If the political framework does not exist or is not supportive, what can I do as a person? First thing that comes to my mind is to make conscious choices and buy environmental friendly cleaning materials (which I have been doing for so many years). The second thing that comes to my mind is that I can raise awareness for using non-phosphate detergents. There is so much to do for water! I now want to find out some statistics about people purchasing phosphate vs non-phosphate detergents. Lots to do!

Staying at Element Terre last year touched me so gently with the way they treat the land, water and people. I think successful “doings” happen when people just do what they believe in without even thinking about it. Thanks to Element Terre for “being” a friend of water, a friend of earth.

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