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Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France

The Local France
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Famous Canal du Midi stays closed amid water level fears in France
Boats berthed on the bottom of the Canal du Midi after water was drained for maintenance work in November, 2019. (Photo by ERIC CABANIS / AFP)

As drought forces the reopening of the Canal du Midi to be postponed, warnings over the low level of France’s water table have brought home the scale of the problems facing the country heading into summer.

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The Canal du Midi in south-west France remains closed three weeks later than scheduled after refilling operations following winter maintenance work were slowed down because of drought.

The 240 km canal - a Unesco World Heritage site and a major tourist attraction that was built in the 17th century - connects Toulouse to the Mediterranean. Along with the 193km Canal de Garonne, it forms the Canal des Deux Mers, joining the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. It was due to reopen fully to navigation in February, after parts had been drained for routine maintenance and restoration work over winter.

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Daily readings show the water level of the canal are 30 cm below normal levels, which means that it is too low to be safely navigable.

Voies navigables de France (VNF), which operates and maintains the canal, said in a statement that it had decided to postpone complete replenishment until mid-March, meaning it would remain closed to navigation for longer than originally anticipated, to ensure drinking water supplies for hundreds of thousands of people.

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“The priority issue in this context of drought is to ensure the supply of drinking water for the populations,” VNF said last month.

“Voies navigables de France contributes to this by directing 50 percent of the water captured in the Black Mountains to supply the Cammazes reservoir to secure access to drinking water for the 220,000 inhabitants who depend on it. 

“VNF has also decided to postpone the complete replenishment of the Canal du Midi until March 15, 2023, in order to replenish the water reserves of the Lampy and Saint-Ferréol reservoirs as much as possible. This measure should lead to a saving of around 400,000m3 of water.”

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Water to supply the Canal du Midi comes mainly from the Aude, the Cesse and the Hérault rivers, but also from reservoirs at Lampy, Saint Ferréol and Ganguise. 

"The last few months have been particularly dry in the south-west basin and on the two dam-reservoirs managed by Voies navigables de France in the Black Mountains are at 55 percent compared to 85 percent at the same time in 2022,” VNF said.

The news about the absence of water to replenish one of south-west France’s most important waterways comes as the Bureau de recherches géologiques et minières (BRGM) warned that the water table across almost all of France was at a worryingly low level.

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French local authorities are already putting in place water restrictions in order to try and avoid another punishing drought this summer, as the environment minister told the country “we should be alarmed” about the water situation.

READ ALSO France to impose water restrictions to avoid summer drought

And the scale of the problem was highlighted in a BRGM report published on Monday, March 13th, in which it said: “Groundwater levels remain below normal with 80 percent of levels moderately low to very low. The situation has deteriorated due to the lack of effective rainfall in February.”

Following a dry winter - no rain was recorded in France for 32 days - the BRGM described the situation as “degraded and unsatisfactory”. 

The remaining hope is for improved rainfall in March. “Recharge could resume in March in the areas that have been watered and the situation could then improve,” BRGM said. But it warned that insufficient rain would place further strain on low stocks.

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Much further into the year and the water table will stop being replenished as most of any rain that falls will be taken up by vegetation, experts have said.

However, even with significant rainfall, water levels in France may not return to normal levels. “The replenishment of stocks by spring remains difficult to envisage with the reactive aquifers showing very low levels.”

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