Provence & Côte d'Azur: From Marseille to Imperia, we take a look at how that most precious resource is fed into our homes
Where does our drinking water come from?
More than 20,000 people came to Marseille for a week recently with the aim of discussing one topic: water. At the 6th World Water Forum, which took place from 12th to 17th March in the Cité bleue, representatives from politics, business, science and society discussed options for the fair distribution of drinking water. But what is the real situation with regard to the supply of drinking water in the Côte d'Azur and Provence? The situation in Marseille provides some insights.
Three hundred days of sunshine every year: Marseille likes to refer to its climatic advantages on a regular basis. But the very feature that is so appealing to tourists has long been a major challenge for people in the entire region: broad swathes of south eastern France suffer year after year from chronic water shortages in summer.
During the 19th century, there was a huge increase in Europe's population. At the same time, sanitary conditions and the quality of the drinking water worsened and attracted an unwelcome guest: cholera.
At the beginning of the 1830s the disease started its lethal journey through the Continent, finally reaching the city of Marseille in 1833. As the epidemic abated, the city made a decision to end its water shortages once and for all: this led to the plan to build the Canal de Marseille.
Over 15 years, more than 5,000 people worked on the 84-kilometre canal project, which connects the river Durance with the port city via numerous aquaducts and tunnels. On 19th November 1849, the first hectolitres made their 24-hour journey via the canal and were enthusiastically received by thousands of Marseille residents on Plateau Longchamp.
For almost a century, the Marseille residents more or less got all their drinking water from the canal, before the city began to clean the water on a systematic basis. Today, three treatment plants deal with the city's water supply, the largest of which is in the northern city district of Sainte Marthe at the foot of Massif de l'Etoile.
At the plant, water is cleaned using suspended matter, filtered using sand and finally cleansed of bacteria and viruses with ozone. Tasting slightly of chlorine, the water is then pumped into the city's piping system. Until 1970, all of Marseille's drinking water came from the river Durance.
The construction of the Canal de Provence, which branched off from the river Verdon, provided the city with a second supply route.
However, the city - as is the case with large areas of the PACA region - is completely dependent on water from the Alps. Should this supply dry up, the whole region would have a serious problem, as there practically no alternatives to the canals.
As things stand, however, there is no water shortage in Marseille. The company Eaux de Marseille, a subsidiary of the international Veolia group, is responsible for the water supply. The company claims that it is able to cover the daily requirement of up to 450,000 cubic metres without any problem; the two canals are able to supply twice that volume.
At least the 20,000 visitors to the World Water Forum did not have to go thirsty in March. Indeed, they were able to drink water that need not fear comparison with the major French water brands.
Peter Hacker, Anne Morris
Province of Imperia
In Italy they call it oro blu (blue gold), and if you consider that the supply of the earth's drinking water is becoming more problematic, then this description is even more apt.
The province of Imperia can therefore consider itself fortunate to be able to cover three quarters of its needs from the ground water reservoir served by several rivers from the Maritime Alps close by. The Roya river, which has its source in the French Alpes Maritimes, has by far the largest water capacity and has been providing drinking water to the surrounding communities for around a decade. The river runs through 50 kilometres worth of pipelines between Ventimiglia and Diano Marina to the sea.
A man-made lake has also been established 1,316 metres above Sanremo in order to store water in the event of droughts. The lake has now become a tourist magnet in the province because of the attractive surroundings.
The quality of the drinking water is the responsibility of the regional health authority, ASL1, as well as the AMAT water company. Tests are carried out on a weekly basis according to criteria laid down by the law. "The test results from last week are positive," assured Giuseppe Ianello, adviser of the drinking water department at ASL, in an email to The Riviera Times at the beginning of March. "Should the tests not comply with the standards, the Mayor and operator of the responsible water company are informed so that they can undertake the appropriate measures to protect the health of residents and rectify the situation." The results of the analysis can be accessed at ASL1 in Sanremo.
If you listen to and observe the people in Imperia, it becomes quickly apparent that many prefer not to drink the tap water, particularly in the summer when the water is sometimes cloudy, smells of chlorine and tastes salty.
Those who can rely on spring water from the nearby mountains fill their own bottles. Others use a water filter in order to eliminate the undesirable substances. Some buy mineral water in plastic bottles, which naturally attracts the attention of environmental organisations such as Arpal, who are making efforts to reduce the huge amount of plastic waste.
Via the Io bevo l'acqua del rubinetto (I drink water from the tap) campaign that was launched in Genoa province last year, Arpal called on residents to stop buying water in plastic bottles and to consider the ecological and economic advantages of drinking tap water.
Ironically, the treatment of sewage in the city of Imperia is far from resolved: although it has been under construction for years, the sewage treatment plant in the district of Oneglia is still not fully functional and the waste water is still being pumped into the sea. According to information from the relevant authority in the province administration, the plant is expected to go into operation this June.
Canal de Provence
Many people who walk along the banks of the canal would never guess that this waterway, which blends so well into the countryside, was created as a project to resolve an acute water emergency.
The Canal de Provence is more than 200 kilometres in length, of which 70 is above ground. Construction began in 1964, and now half a century and two billion euros later it provides drinking water to over two million people in 110 towns and communities, including Marseille, Aix en Provence and Toulon, that’s 40 per cent of the Provence/Côte d'Azur population.
Added to this are the water supply companies of 6,000 agricultural holdings with 70,000 hectares of agricultural land, 400 companies and 50,000 hydrants.
In addition, 4,500 kilometres of pipes and cables were laid and 82 dams, reservoirs and 70 pump stations were built, as well as 18 plants that treat, filter and clean the water before it can be supplied to consumers as drinking water.
The Canal de Provence, which was based on a Roman model, starts in Vinon sur Verdon at an altitude of 340 metres and flows naturally down to the coast. It is fed by Verdon, which brings in around 650 million cubic litres a year or a maximum of 40 cubic litres per second.
At Rians, the canal divides: one branch runs through the Sainte Victoire Massif into the Vallone Dol Reservoir in Marseille, and the other runs to Toulon. A third branch from Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume to Sainte Maxime on the coast is being built.