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History and social impacts of this hidraulic construction

In this post, we will explain how the construction of the Chevril Dam (or Tignes’ dam) which pushed people to leave their homeland where they used to be farmers gave birth to one of the most famous tourist area of the world. Moreover, we cannot forget that this dam produces the electricity that a city as big as Grenoble would need (900 GWh/year).

After the Second World War, France needed to be reconstructed. At the time, there were two possible strategies: to rebuild the buildings destroyed or to start with the production sector. The General De Gaulle chose the second option and the French government started a nationalization policy. Thus, lots of investments were made in order to build a major means of electricity production. This policy led to the creation of the company Electricité de France (EDF) in 1946, and also, to the construction of hydroelectric dams in the Alps Mountains. In 1947, the famous engineer André Coyne designed the gigantic arch dam of Tignes. The Chevril reservoir, located in the high valley of the Isère River, was the perfect spot to build a big dam. The construction of the dam, at the time known as the biggest arch dam of Europe, took six years. In this post, we will talk about the economic and social consequences of this building.

The first issue was a social matter, common with most of the big dams: some people had to be moved from the old Tignes village. Indeed, this village was going to be drowned by the reservoir. Nowadays, we have got some famous and even more dramatic example such as The Three Gorges dam in China, which pushed away from their homes more than 2 million people. Compared to this, we can think that moving a village of 387 inhabitants (what happened in Tignes), should not have been a major problem. Nevertheless, we have to acknowledge that in 1947, this village was quite an important one in Savoie. Indeed, only a few people were living in the middle of the mountains sixty years ago. Moreover, because of the construction of the dam, most of the people had to stop their agricultural activity due to the rise of the water level. Thus, the inhabitants tried to interrupt and even to cancel the construction of the dam using different strategies. While some of them launched a legal pursuit and a trial, some other were destroying the machinery to stop the progress of the construction. Even if some famous newspapers such as Paris Match talked about the problem, the construction went on under the protection of the Guarde Mobile (police). The village was completely swallowed in 1952, and the 4th of July 1953 the dam was officially inaugurated by the French Republic President.  

First and foremost, the dam was constructed in order to produce energy. It is known as the key element of the hydroelectric production in the Haute-Tarentaire valley. In fact, 235 millions of cubic meter of water are stocked by the dam, allowing EDF to inject 400 MW to the electrical network in a few minutes (consumption of a 340 000 inhabitants city). Moreover, these hydroelectric power plants produce a cleaner energy than the traditional fossil-fuel power stations.

Therefore, we may wonder how a work that would later create such positive development and employment in a region would be completely rejected by its inhabitants. The case of Tignes gives us an interesting perspective to think about the often conflicting interests that a group of people living in a territory can have with the nation that includes this territory. Indeed, it illustrates the question of who actually benefits the most from the infrastructure and who suffers the most from its construction. Usually, there is an inequality between these two parties that the government must repair or at least reduce through a fair rehousing and subsidizing policy. Otherwise, the forced displacement may spark a harsh rejection from the population. This protest can worsen if the government lacks of communication and preliminary planning with the local community. Tignes was a perfect example of this phenomenon. Indeed, no information at all was communicated to the inhabitants about their rehousing, the reconstruction of public buildings or the displacement of the cemetery. Consequently, the magnitude of the resistance in Tignes can be explained not only by the commonsensical fact that the inhabitants were very attached to their homeland and their good agricultural pastures but also by the government’s poor communication and  managing of the population displacement.

What changes has the dam caused to the region since its construction? And where did the inhabitants of the old Tignes go? We now know that, 3 years after the dam’s completion, some Tignards created a new village with the help of government subsidies. Nowadays, the new Tignes is famous worldwide for its ski station, as showed by the organization of 3 ski races during the Albertville Olympics of 1992, or the hosting of the Winter X-Games from 2010 to 2014. Moreover, the town of Tignes is now the home of more than 2 000 inhabitants (2494 in 2012), which represents a 650% increase in the population compared to the old village.

Clearly, the construction of the dam has played an important role in the creation of the new Tignes, which is nowadays a leader of French tourism. Although roughly two thousand people live in the town all year long, the city has a huge capacity of accommodation: more than 31 000 beds in hotels! In Savoie (the department of Tignes), tourism has become a very dynamic sector thanks to the development of winter activities. Indeed, the wealth created by this sector corresponds to 14% of the department’s total wealth. In 2012, a survey calculated that 54.32 million tourists visited the French Alps, which makes it the second most popular ski location worldwide, behind the United States. Although the Tignes dam is not the only reason for the success of Tignes’ ski station, it enabled the access to an isolated area, which became progressively one of the most attractive places for winter tourism throughout the world.

To conclude this study, we can observe that the process by which the State takes land from a population and destroys an entire village is very hurtful for the people affected. But, in hindsight and in the particular case of Tignes, it is legitimate to say that the importance of the dam’s consequences on the energetic and touristic development of the region is by far superior to the inhabitant’s original interests. Therefore, the Tignes dam is a good example of what occurs because of a bad project communication and the lack of a preliminary planning with the inhabitants affected by the work. These lessons may be applied for the big works of civil engineering that are still to come.

Benjamin TOTEL y Dustin BILLON

Erasmus students from ETSI Caminos, Canales y Puertos. UPM 

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