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Life on the riverside

Adaptation practices from Switzerland to the Amazon

Josephine Condemi
a story by
Josephine Condemi
Life on the riverside

The Italian photographer Vittoria Lorenzetti went to the Amazon to study some of the populations living on the Amazon River and their relationship with water. On the other side of the ocean, the architect Sara Formery focused her urban research and rehabilitation project on four sites along the Rhône, both in Switzerland and France. We met them

Rivers help mitigate the temperature. At the same time, they are among the primary carriers of floods. Climate change is forcing us to rethink both of these phenomena, which have always affected the swinging relationship between cities and watercourses. If in ancient times “the embrace” of the riverside life prevailed, because of the need to move, to defend ourselves, and to get supplies, in the Middle Ages “the refusal” took over, because of the fear of floods, inundations, and of the hygienic risk that living near a river can entail.

We reconnected with rivers during the industrial revolutions, as they were considered useful energy suppliers, and we almost abandoned them again with the tertiary and service industries outbreak. And what about now?

Balance according to Rhodanie Urbaine

«The risk of flooding has been very high on the Rhône as well», says Sara Formery. «Some historical events have led, either to the construction of cities “turning their backs” on the river, or to the bridling of its power through dams and riverbed “correction measures1”». The Rhône is the most important French river by volume of water: it has its source in Switzerland, crosses Lake Geneva, and ends up in France, passing through Lyons, Avignon, and Arles, where it splits into two branches before flowing as a delta into the Mediterranean Sea with a flow rate at its mouth of more than 1,800 cubic metres per second. Its numerous tributaries form a river basin of over 95,000 square kilometres.

Sara Formery is an architect. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lousanne in 2008, she alternated her professional activity between independent practice (formerykössler Sàrl) and architectural design teaching. In 2024, she will complete the doctoral course she started in 2018 under the supervision of Prof. Emmanuel Rey within the Laboratory of Sustainable Architecture and Technologies (LAST) at EPFL: the results of her research project “Quartiers rhodaniens en transition” are currently being published.

Discover the Rhodanie Urbane project

Among the nearly 1,400 sites on the banks of the Rhône, Formery identified four neighbourhoods in Sion, Geneva, Givors (Lyon), and Avignon, one for each of the river’s different hydrographical regimes2, for her PhD project, investigating a new balance between the cities and the river. «These are very different neighbourhoods but they all have a very close relationship with the Rhône: at least one of the sides of their borders is in contact with the water» she explains. «They are all also related to important transport facilities such as railways or motorways and have a density per hectare of about 150 and 200 residents».

Alongside the creation of the architectural plans, Formery developed a “sustainability matrix”, a support tool for the decision-making process that could be used to measure the city-river balance, based on six components3: risk positivity, energy transition, environmental dynamics, “fluvio-urban” resources, participatory management and river agility. «Each component was broken down into three specific indicators to be related on three different scales: the region, the city and the neighbourhood» explains the researcher. «Pondering river-related issues involves looking at the impact at different levels». For example, in order to assess “risk positivity”, one can analyse the management practices that exist at the regional level, but also the risk perception of the city’s inhabitants and the neighbourhood’s “porosity” index, in other words, the extent to which spaces, both built or not, are able to absorb rainfall by acting as a sponge.

Similarly, the energy transition can be assessed by comparing the regional energy strategy with the city’s river mobility and neighbourhood carbon neutrality. A particularly important issue on the Rhône, which is massively used both as a source of hydropower and as a cooling resource for French nuclear power plants.

For participatory management practices, Formery has explored paths such as Appel du Rhône4, the transnational citizen mobilisation for the recognition of a legal personality for the Rhône. So is there a shared identity of the people who live along the river? «More and more, partly thanks to this process» Formery says «The petition allowed us to realise that people are actually starting to show some interest in the river, as well as to realise that it belongs to a larger geographical system, that it is necessary to preserve a whole series of qualities and also that it is something that binds you to a population that is relatively far away but that is on the same blue line».

Like all cross-border watercourses, the emblematic example of which is the Mekong, the Rhône raises cross-border management issues: the river’s water supply is mainly managed by the dam on Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The negotiations with France that began in 2015 are still ongoing.

As the resource decreases, there are some obvious conflicts that arise and we realise that it is not enough to have agreements but that we really need to have real common management scenarios.

Formery adds: «The most recent study estimates a 20% decrease in flow in the future compared to the current situation, to which we have to add the anomalies of rainfall peaks and droughts. It will be necessary to manage this great uncertainty in which we are venturing».

The projects created by the researcher-architect, based on the material developed from the workshops she held over four years with students from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, represent three scenarios for each site. These include the “underwater park” in Avignon: «Instead of having a park as we understand it today, that is public and accessible, we thought of a series of buildings resting on two dams, raised off the ground, so that in the event of floods or rising water levels, the water itself can be housed without endangering the inhabitants or compromising the functioning of the neighbourhood» Formery explains. «The vegetation underneath that can be submerged can be used for phyto-purification, hence soil purification». A kind of Third Millennium stilt house. Unlike Europe, where stilt houses are somewhat unusual, they are the norm in other parts of the world.

Life in the Amazonian stilt houses

«I lived in some communities in the area on the border between Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, the region of the triple frontier, where the three countries meet on the Amazon River. And I stayed on stilts»: the photographer Vittoria Lorenzetti spent six months in the Amazon, from March to August 2022, to capture the connection between the people living on the Amazon River and water. «I met at least 30 communities on this transboundary border, that can be seen along the river» she explains «Each one composed of a minimum of 10-15 people to a maximum of 100. But as you walk into the jungle you will definitely find even more».

Vittoria Lorenzetti is a freelance photographer, specialising in documentary photography. After graduating in “Political Science” in 2014, she chose to dedicate herself to her passion. From 2017 to 2019, she documented the stories of survivors of sexual violence with the reportage “Unsafe: behind India’s rape crisis”, produced in collaboration with several NGOs. Since 2020 her work focused on the dialogue between the environment and human beings and socio-environmental sustainability, and since 2022 she has been documenting the relationship between the Amazon ecosystem and the peoples who inhabit it. Her pictures have been shown in solo and group exhibitions. She won the Italian Sustainability Photo Award (2021) and was a finalist for the Julia Margaret Cameron Award (2023).

From Bogotà, Colombia, to Leticia, the gateway to the Amazon rainforest, on the border with Brazil. «From there, after 5-6 hours of navigation, we arrived in Puerto Nariño, where I was based, and took the boat to continue along the river» Lorenzetti explains. «We used to travel by boat, then after four to eight hours of navigation, we would stop in a community for a couple of days, depending on what was going on. At first, I never take out my camera, I try to connect with the place and the people, and I give myself time to understand. I don’t take posed shots, I take pictures of what I experience: taking pictures is like stepping into someone’s home, and it is rude to show up without permission. It is nice to first build a relationship that allows you to experience authentic, intimate situations».

The Amazon River, the world’s first river in terms of water flow, has a range of more than ten metres in its level between the dry and rainy seasons. The stilt houses are therefore a practical solution to avoid being submerged. «Each stilt house is five metres high and higher», Lorenzetti explains. «The houses are made of a type of wood that is highly water resistant, the same wood they use to build boats, which are called peke-peke. When the water rises, the forest floods: imagine the trees half underwater. When the water goes down, you use ladders, also made of wood, to climb up to the house, and you build improvised bridges to connect the different stilt houses, like a village». «These bridges can also be crossed by bicycle, by moped… whereas during floods, people move by boat».

The landscape changes at every flood: «There’s a local proverb that says that “the jungle changes behind your back” because it follows the movement of the water» Lorenzetti explains. «A drone photo taken at the same spot a year later will show a different landscape: it depends on whether new trees have sprouted, or whether the main watercourse has shifted to the right or left. It’s truly a magical place». Different seasons also mean different travel times:

The rising or lowering of the water level completely affects their lives.

Lorenzetti continues «One girl told me it takes her 20 to 30 minutes by boat and 45 minutes on foot to get to school, and every year areas that were once accessible are no longer, and vice versa».

Some of the shots taken by photographer Vittoria Lorenzetti. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the consent of the author.

There is no shortage of structures floating on the river: «These can be private houses, bars, restaurants, and gas stations» Lorenzetti says. Yet, in the Amazon, there’s a lack of potable water: «The waters of the Amazon River are often contaminated, and periods of drought are increasing» Lorenzetti explains «That’s why the relationship with water is even more important». There is no electricity in the forest: people use plastic bottles bought in Puerto Nariño or rainwater to drink. «The government provides black tanks of various diameters. Rainwater falls on the tin roofs and is redirected through a gutter into the tank» Lorenzetti explains «On top is a mosquito net to keep out insects or animals, and this water is used for everything: washing, cooking, and any other use. Of course, these plastic tanks have to be cleaned periodically above the piles on which they are placed, just below the roofs of the houses». And when the water drains away, you can see better what’s underneath: «There’s so much plastic in the Amazon River, but also highlighter-colored candy wrappers» Lorenzetti points out «Then there are also communities that collect all the plastic and use it as plant pots». The alternation between dry and full seasons also affects agriculture: «The women are responsible for processing Yuka, a kind of tuber that cannot be eaten raw and that in two or three days they turn into flour to store», Lorenzetti explains «If the rhythm of the seasons changes, the land is submerged for many meters and they lose everything».

The introduction of Western consumer goods, and tourism in the larger communities, is not accompanied by waste disposal practices and coexists with traditional practices: «The indigenous peoples I met are sustainable because of the animism with which they conceive of life and the nature that surrounds them» Lorenzetti remarks «For example, one of the first times I entered the jungle, the indigenous boy I went with asked me to introduce myself and ask for permission. “The Mother is alive, she doesn’t know you and it is important that you do so”, he told me. Another example is the relationship with water, seen as a sacred element: when it rained and I got nervous, I was told to give thanks for the rain, which comes from where everything comes from and is a sign that the forest is working» Lorenzetti recalls. «And then there is the relationship with the border: they say that borders only exist on maps because if water and plants are constantly moving and transforming, they cannot exist in reality». What will we take away from these experiences to live better thanks to, and not despite, our rivers?


  1. On the Rhône correction measures, see: ↩︎
  2. In detail, the four hydrographic regimes analysed are: Alpine Rhône (from the source to Lake Geneva), Upper Rhône (from Lake Geneva to Saone), Middle Rhône (from Saone to Isère), Lower Rhône (from Isère to Arles) and Delta (from Arles to the Mediterranean Sea) ↩︎
  3. For more on the six components determining the city-river balance, see Formery S., Laprise M., Rey E. (2023).
    Promoting a city-river balance within neighborhoods in transition along the Rhône,
    City and Environment Interactions, vol. 17.  ↩︎
  4. The official website ↩︎


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