For hundreds of years, the Seine River has inspired artists, served as the backdrop for scenic romantic strolls, and provided a thoroughfare along some of the most familiar Paris landmarks, such as the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame. But it’s not been a waterway that invites people to swim—in fact, swimming in the Seine has been banned since 1923 due to river traffic and pollution.
Now an intensive cleanup effort is underway in the City of Light to restore the Seine. If successful, the famous waterway will unveil its transformation on one of the world’s most prominent stages: the forthcoming Paris 2024 Summer Olympics.
If Paris can resuscitate the Seine, it will be showcased during the Games’ opening ceremony, which, for the first time, will take place outside of a stadium and will see a flotilla of boats parade athletes through the capital along the famous waterway. It will also serve as the venue for some swimming competitions: two long-distance races and the water portion of the triathlon. From there, the city hopes to keep the river clean enough that locals and visitors can continue to swim in it.
The cleanup was a key part of Paris’s bid to host the 2024 Olympics. And while the recovery of the river’s water quality has been accelerated by the international sporting event, providing a clear timeline for improving the ecological and environmental quality of the Seine and its tributaries, efforts to revive the river have been underway, to a certain degree, for decades. In 1990, for example, Jacques Chirac (then mayor of Paris and later president) swore he would swim in the river within three years to prove that it had been cleaned, a vow that never materialized.
In order to achieve the aspiration now, Paris is looking less toward purifying the waterway and more toward keeping untreated water from entering the river in the first place. To do that, the city has installed a series of new underground pipes, freshwater tanks, and pumps with the goal of keeping harmful bacteria, like E. coli and enterococci bacteria, out of the river. Authorities have also improved sewage treatment plants along the river and its tributaries and replumbed homes upstream whose wastewater had been flowing into the river. The city has also created storage facilities, such as the “giant hole [next to Paris’s Austerlitz train station] that will hold the equivalent of 20 Olympic swimming pools of dirty water that will now be treated rather than being spat raw through storm drains in the river” according to the Associated Press. It’s an undertaking that’s been given a budget of $1.53 billion.
So far, it’s been a successful mission. At one point, there were only three species of fish left in the Seine. Today, Solene Bures, a spokesperson for the City of Paris, tells AFAR there are 30 species of fish in Paris, which she argues illustrates how far the city has come. She added that had the Olympic and Paralympic Games been held in the summer of 2022, the water would have been safe enough for swimming 90 percent of the time.
The wild card factor, however, is the weather. Should the city see a storm in the days leading up to the competition, the runoff could degrade the water quality. In that case, Olympic officials would have to postpone the races that are scheduled to be held in the Seine until the waterway passes quality tests.
In 2025, Paris city officials hope to open permanent swimming areas at four locations along the river in the city center. (Other swimming areas may open later and at other spots along the Seine, according to the city.) According to Bures, it’s too soon to say what those areas will look like.
And while the Olympics aren’t historically known for having a positive environmental impact (often the stadiums constructed in host cities go unused after the games, such as Beijing’s famous “Bird’s Nest,” which cost $460 million to construct and $10 million a year to maintain but sits largely empty), having a clean Seine is an encouraging legacy. It’ll also act as a case study for other large cities that are keen on improving their own waterways, such as Berlin’s Spree River and Boston’s Charles River.
As Dan Angelescu, a scientist who is tracking the Seine’s water quality for Paris, told the Associated Press, “It will create waves, so to speak, across the world because a lot of cities are watching Paris.”