I have a new obsession: there is a massive clean up of the Canal Saint Martin underway and it has me so fascinated that I’m visiting the canal about every other day. It’s an exercise that only happens every 10 -14 years, lasts about four months and, this time around, will cost the city of Paris close to 10 million Euros. It’s clearly no small undertaking!
The Canal Saint Martin was the brainchild of Napoleon I way back in 1802. At that time Paris was experiencing rapid growth and it was Napoleon’s idea that a canal would allow the city to better provide its expanding population with fresh drinking water thereby helping to avoid diseases such as dysentery and cholera. As a bonus, the Canal could also be used to bring in a wide variety of food and building products on canal boats.
The Canal Saint Martin took 23 years to build and, in a most appropriately French way, was funded by an additional tax on wine. It’s 4.5km long and has 9 separate sets of locks within the city. It joins the Orcq River that lies 100 km to the northeast of Paris with the Seine.
Over the years the relative importance of the canal waned. Boat traffic dwindled and fresh drinking water was secured from other sources. By the 1960’s the importance of the Canal Saint Martin had diminished significantly enough that the city actually considered filling it in altogether. Instead, about one-third of the canal was covered over in the development of new roads, while the rest became a popular destination for Parisians and tourists alike. Today, on any summer evening, the boundaries along the canal are full with people having picnics, relaxing and watching the sightseeing barges navigate the locks.
Neither the enormity nor the importance of cleaning the Canal Saint Martin can be overstated. The exercise first involves draining 90,000 cubic metres of water from the lock system and re-locating the 4 tonnes of fish that live in the water. Backhoes, frontend loaders and other big equipment are then brought in to dredge and clean the bottom of the canal. At the same time any damage to the walls or the locks themselves has to be dealt with.
Besides my general curiosity with the process of cleaning something as big and complex as the Canal Saint Martin, what has me particularly fascinated is the unbelievably wide array of garbage lying at the bottom of the canal. In 2001, the date of the last massive clean, 40 tonnes of garbage was removed. Think about it: 40 tonnes – that’s the same as removing an adult humpback whale from the canal! And that’s in a body of water that has NO reason to have anything other than fish in it.
Instead, what the cleaners have found at the bottom of the Canal Saint Martin is mind-boggling. There are enough bicycles to fill a store, mopeds, shopping carts, chairs and other furniture, suitcases, coolers and enough beer bottles/cans to finance a great holiday if they were all returned for refund.
Even if photographing this detritus is fun and creatively challenging, I actually find it all rather disgusting. As a society we know better and there are no acceptable excuses for any piece of garbage being found in the Canal. Personally, I would like to see the city of Paris put ALL of the garbage from the canal in a giant mound on the Place de la République or some other prominent location and use it in an anti-littering campaign. Perhaps put up a big sign that says something to the effect of: “The fish said you can have your stuff back.” With this, coupled with all we now know about the importance of both protecting the environment and clean water I can only hope that the next time the Canal Saint Martin is cleaned, somewhere around 2030, the city will have to spend more of their time relocating the fish as they empty the locks than they will picking up the garbage that lies at the bottom of it.
For more photos check out the Photo Gallery titled: Trashy Photos