Paris drains famed Canal Saint-Martin in €9.5 million clean-up

Sarah Leduc, FRANCE 24

For the first time in fourteen years, Paris authorities on Monday began draining the Canal Saint-Martin, a popular waterway that attracts tourists and revellers in the French capital’s trendy northeastern 10th arrondissement.


The complex operation involves emptying the three-mile-long canal of 90,000 cubic metres of water – and moving more than four tonnes of fish to their new home in the River Seine – before workers can repair the locks and collect the inevitable piles of rubbish.

It will cost the city €9.5 million and turn the waterway into a dry ditch for three months.

“We do this, on average, every 12 to 14 years,” said Célia Blauel, who is in charge of the city’s waterways and environmental policies.

“It’s necessary to dredge the canal, repair its walls and renovate the locks,” she told FRANCE 24.

Napoleonic origins

The picturesque waterway was commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1804 to provide the capital with both goods and fresh water.

It survived the decline in boat traffic after the two world wars and has since found a new raison d’être as a magnet for tourists, youths and families.

Most of the canal’s nine locks were modernised in 2008 and are now controlled remotely.

Joseph Tomasi, who has worked the locks for 25 years, said he missed the “good old days” when he was solely in charge.

“We knew all the people in the neighbourhood, some would even bring us croissants,” he told FRANCE 24. “We were at the heart of Parisian life.”

Tomasi still had plenty to do on Monday as he opened the first lock upstream, marking the start of the great canal clean-up.

“By the end of the day the canal will be all but empty, leaving a shallow pool of water to collect the fish,” said Julien Gaidot, who is in charge of draining operations.

A team of around a dozen fishermen will have three days to complete their catch, before the canal is fully emptied on Thursday.

Junked bikes, tubs and WWI shells

In all likelihood the workers will be catching a lot more than just fish. The downside of the canal’s increasing popularity is the surge in rubbish thrown into its murky waters.

The last clean-up in 2001 revealed some 40 tonnes of detritus, including bicycles, motorbikes, bathtubs and two 75mm shells dating from World War I.

This year the workers are expecting to find several of the city's popular Velib’ hire bikes as well as a mountain of beer cans and bottles.

“And I’m not even talking about the dead animals!” joked Tomasi, pointing at a huge rat the size of a cat racing across the lock.

Blauel, the environmental official, said the city ultimately planned to make the Villette basin upstream of the canal fit for swimming.

The basin, which connects the Canal Saint-Martin with the larger Canal de l’Ourcq, is currently banned to swimmers – although Parisians regularly brave the ban in the hot summer months.

But Tomasi has no plans to go for a dip. “Down there you can barely see 10 inches in front of you,” he said.

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