Bucolic Canal du Midi Must Do Some Work
Moves afoot to boost commercial use of major waterways in France and across Europe — reducing pollution by road hauliers — should apply also to the Canal du Midi local officials suggest.
This debate about a commercial future for Pierre-Paul Riquet’s brilliantly engineered 330 year-old canal, is one of the topics under the spotlight at the 26th World Canals Conference (16 to 19 September 2013) hosted by Toulouse and which has attracted waterways specialists from around the globe.
National and local French politicians are mobilising to usher in a new era for regional transportation of goods along the UNESCO-listed World Heritage Canal du Midi shifting away from its current concentration as a bucolic postcard or cushy toy for tourists.
As the conference opened Danielle Charles Toulouse Councillor (Green Party) in charge of rivers and canals told La Dépêche du Midi:”We must move away from tourism monoculture on the canal so it can coexist with other uses that generate activity year round, help de-silt the canal and usher in a virtuous environmental and economic circle”.
Environmentalists are arguing for a revival of regional transportation of goods by barge as in days when the Canal played an important role in developing trade and wine exports in the Languedoc.
Accordingly they welcome data suggesting that a canal barge is seven times less polluting than a road haulage truck and consumes four times less fuel.
Thus local Greens quoted by La Dépêche suggest that: “Toulouse could contribute to a dynamic use of canal freight by say creating a weekly market of regional products at places along the canal where it winds through the city, supplied by canal barges. This ambition would fit well with current central government concerns to encourage shorter food supply lines and meet increasing interest among Toulouse consumers in quality regional produce”.
Welcoming the conference delegates Toulouse Mayor Pierre Cohen wrote: “This conference, a worldwide reference regarding canals and inland waterways, is unique in its format, and appeals to a whole range of interested parties: waterway managers, scientists, professionals of town planning and waterway tourism from throughout the world. It will stimulate cooperation and exchange of know-how and experience among specialists but also between different countries, at a time when the importance of inland waterways is increasingly recognised. Management methods and scenarios, the economics of canal uses and impacts, all the heritage, environmental and economic aspects of our waterways will be presented by specialists with sessions for discussions and debate.”
Ahead of the conference the European Commission confirmed its support for developing river freight, including along Deux-Mers canal (which links Bordeaux with the Rhone Canal at Sete on the Mediterranean). The EU’s “Naïades II” program launched in Strasbourg and backed by French Minister of Transport Frederic Cuvillier, aims to drive this development. “We already move 500 million tonnes of freight along European rivers and canals each year — equivalent of 25 million trucks — but this is not enough,” Siim Kallas, European Commissioner for Transport said announcing the revived aid programme . “Naiads II” has as a priority to develop river transport from 2014 to 2020. Locks, bridges and navigation channels are to be upgraded and river transport made as “green” as possible. A 1,000 tons barge while driven by an engine twice as powerful as that of a freight truck, carries 25 times more cargo”, he added.
Jean-Paul Delachou, president of the Association of Municipalities of the Deux Mers Canal said: The purpose of this canal when it was built was to transport goods from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. (The debate now underway) reflects more than ever the move to rehabilitate waterways for commercial use. 160 tons of cargo transported in barges equals 160 freight trucks that are removed from our roads. We hope this World Congress will help enthuse the authorities responsible for the canal to embark on joint initiatives with other waterways and revive its commercial use”.
Another major issue likely to spark much interest at the congress is the fate of the canal’s diseased plane trees. Some 42,000 plane trees bordering the Canal du Midi are affected by an incurable and highly infectious canker stain. Most of the affected trees are in the Aude and Herault region although the fungus has also been detected in Haute-Garonne. Some along the Canal de Garonne, the waterway that provides access to the ocean from Toulouse, are also affected.
A National Commission last spring launched a plan to replace those that have been or will be cut down. The removal and replanting is set to take between 10 and 13 years at a cost estimated at €200 million over 20 years. This is to be split more or less evenly between the state, local authorities and private sponsors. But nobody knows if companies and individuals will dig deep enough into their pockets to meet this funding target.
Story: Ken Pottinger
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