Water as heritage

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Water is a common good, a natural heritage, one of the most essential, if not the most essential to human life, which must be managed to ensure its sustainability. What is less well known is that access to drinking water is based on a scientific and technical heritage, developed by human civilizations since ancient times, perfected by the Roman Empire and then transmitted and generalized at least throughout the Western world. (1). A beautifully illustrated and documented book showcases the water heritage of Paris; it is a discovery of a vast and surprising network that is both visible and invisible; it is a journey through a completely unknown urban and rural geography.

It is astonishing the ingenuity of these systems which - created during the Second Empire, then modified and reused according to the times and needs - allow three million Parisians, every day of the year, to have access to drinking water, this so precious common good.

The book Water heritage, which will be released on 12 September next, evokes the history of the natural, architectural, technical and human heritage that ensures the production and distribution of water in the capital but also explains how water management of this rich heritage is a promise for the future.

A little history...

Appointed Prefect of the Seine on 23 June 1853 by Napoleon III, Georges Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891) obtained the approval of the Paris Council for a major water supply and wastewater disposal programme for the capital. He entrusted its implementation to Eugène Belgrand, an engineer from the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, with whom he had already designed and worked when he was Prefect of the Yonne. 

The provision of an abundance of clean water to the various parts of a great city, and its regular distribution to the highest points of the city, is such a blessing that the work done in this regard is one of the great deeds of the most glorious rulers, and holds a lasting place in the memory of men. "Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Mémoires du baron Haussmann, t.III, Grands travaux de Paris, Paris, Victor Havard, 1893, p. 111 and p. 260-262.

In 1856, Eugène Belgrand (1810-1878) took over the management of the Water Department of the City of Pari, then the Water and Sewerage Department in 1867, created by Haussmann.

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The two men advocate the creation of two separate distribution networks, the "public utility" and the "private utility", the latter being supplied mainly with spring water, thus reducing the share of river water in drinking water consumption. This global water supply scheme forms the backbone of the modern system and contributes daily to guaranteeing the water supply of Paris.

A remarkable and living architectural heritage

The architectural heritage of Eau de Paris is characterised by its diversity: buildings and underground galleries built on the site of the springs, aqueducts, factories, reservoirs, fountains, etc.

Moreover, this heritage is not fixed. Some buildings evolve, both in their architecture and in their function. It is therefore not a question of "patrimonializing" monuments but of respecting their historical character by adapting them to the needs of public service today.

"Natural reverie will always keep a privilege to fresh water, water that refreshes, water that quenches one's thirst."

Gaston Bachelard - Water and dreams

Water as a common heritage

Water is at the heart of sustainable development. Water resources, and the range of services they can provide, must contribute to poverty reduction, economic growth and environmental sustainability. From food and energy security to human and environmental health, water must enable improved social well-being and equitable growth, affecting the livelihoods of billions of people.

One of the targets of the Sustainable Development Goal (SDO) is to achieve universal access to water and sustainable water resource management by 2030. In concrete terms, this means leaving no one behind.

Aqueduc de L'Avre - Interior of the Avre aqueduct during an inspection visit.
Pascal Lemaître

Announced by the President of the Republic on 24 November 2018 during the Congress of Mayors, the first session of the Water Forum devoted to water supply and sanitation utilities made it possible to engage in a broad and unprecedented consultation with local elected officials through an online consultation of mayors (2500 responses), but also exchanges in the field on the basin committees and to announce 17 measures renovation of networks for quality water.

This approach has identified several needs to enable elected officials to improve the exercise of this competence: 64 % consider that they need support from the State (setting up local projects with technical and legal engineering). They expect water agencies or banks to finance the renewal of infrastructures; 42 % note a lack of knowledge of water and sanitation networks.

A parallel diagnosis based on the data entered by communities in the information system on public water and sanitation utilities (SISPEA) in 2016 revealed that only 50 % of water utilities and 40 % of sanitation utilities publish their data. Although this represents more than 75 % of the population served, these figures show the need to consolidate data on the state of service; 1 litre in 5 is lost in water networks (national average: 79.6 %), but there are strong contrasts between services.

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In this context, the Government has decided to mobilize public stakeholders (water agencies, local authorities, Caisse des dépôts et consignation) and private stakeholders (water companies, banks) to boost investment in the territories in order to reduce water leaks and improve network management, while ensuring quality water supply in France.

The Assises de l'eau aims to accelerate the renewal of water installations by halving the duration of the pipe renewal cycle, while at the same time aiming to boost investments (drinking water or sewerage plants, pipes, etc.) which will rise to 41 billion euros over the period 2019-2024 (compared with 36 billion euros planned before the Assises over the same period).

And, precisely, Eau de Paris is resolutely in line with the objectives of sustainable development. In 2015, the 193 Member States of the United Nations adopted Agenda 2030, of which the 17 sustainable development objectives are the cornerstone. Among these goals, the sixth, called "Access to safe water and sanitation" directly concerns Paris Water.

Water in the city of tomorrow

Wallace Fountain - Child drinking water from a fountain. Until 1952, a pewter or tin cup attached by a chain allowed drinking from fountains.
Roger-Viollet

It's time to cool down the city, especially its heat islands. Among the avenues for reflection, the Aéro-Seine project aims to water the streets and not just the gutters, as is already the case. With the "Water Reuse" or the use of treated wastewater, the reflection becomes promising. According to the projections made, by watering sunny surfaces, in the morning before 10 am and in the afternoon after 4 pm, at a rate of 1 litre per square metre every 3 minutes, the temperature would decrease in the afternoon by about 4°C, within the perimeter around the cooling mouth. Parisians are in favour of pavements adapted for the streets that would allow rainwater to infiltrate, as well as misters that would spray a fine mist that consumes very little water in the event of very hot weather.

In the call for projects "Reinventing Paris", the Winereef Company, with the architect Miguel Montouro, was elected winner with its project for an underwater cellar for the roofing of two basins of the non-drinking water reservoir in the Passy district. It will involve making wine in these tanks, which will be open to the public. There are also plans for a diving pit, a food hall and urban agriculture.

As Anne Hidalgo, Mayor of Paris, explains in the preface to the book, "... the most important thing is that we have to be able to make the most of our resources. Water is what we share. A common good to be preserved at a time when global warming is making its effects felt [...] Water is what connects us, as humans and as a community. Like air, it knows no boundaries and reminds us that, from upstream to downstream, we are one community, one territory [...]. "

For Célia Blauel, President of Eau de Paris, ". Because the water of Paris is also water from elsewhere, coming from sometimes distant territories, always contrasting but all connected to the capital. The Parisian water heritage is part of an exceptional geography, rural and urban, natural and humanized. They thus constitute a powerful invitation to travel. "

The book Water Heritage takes us on a journey along several historical and heritage sites, with the words and texts of historian Guillaume Picon. (2), specialist in the study of institutional archives, to discover what has given rise to a rich architectural, natural, technical and human heritage.

Les patrimoines de l'eau - Textes de Guillaume Picon - Editions du patrimoine - To be published on 12 September 2019

  1. Benjamin Gestin, Chief Executive Officer at Eau de Paris  
  2. Guillaume Picon is a French historian specializing in the study of institutional archives. He is also a publisher and curator and has written numerous books such as: Le petit livre des rois de France (Editions du Chêne), Un jour à Fontainebleau, and more recently, Château de Villette, Fastes d'un décor à la française (Edition Flammarion).

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