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Sewers of Paris: The Massive Underground Sewers That Keep Paris Clean

BY Sonal Panse June 7, 2019
Sewers of Paris

Sewers of Paris. (Shadowgate / Flickr)

Modern cities have very complex mechanisms in order to function properly and provide their inhabitants with reasonably decent and hygienic living arrangements. The massive underground sewers of Paris play an important role in maintaining civic hygiene. Without them, the city might descend into a cesspit of dirt and disease.

The sewers of Paris

The sewers of Paris are an underground system of drains and waterways that remove waste generated in the city and also bring in supplies of freshwater into the city. These underground sewers exactly replicate the streets overhead. All buildings in the city are connected to the sewers. The waste and wastewater are carried off to treatment plants; they are not directly released into the Seine river.

Paris’s underground sewer system is the biggest in the world. If you stretched out the pipelines, they would cover over 2,100 km. Daily, more than 1.2 million cubic meters of wastewater passes through these sewers.

Musée des Égouts de Paris

Musée des Égouts de Paris. (Shadowgate / Flickr)

Why were the Sewers of Paris built?

The sewers of Paris were built to conduct away wastewater and to funnel clean water. The end goal was to make Paris a more liveable city for its citizens. Believe it or not, for quite a long while this wasn’t the case.

On the site where Paris is currently situated, there was once a Roman city name Lutece. If you’ve read the Asterix and Obelix comics, it is frequently mentioned in those stories as Lutetia. Anyhow, the Romans were first-class engineers and knew the importance of drains and sewers for getting rid of waste and wastewater. It was probably bearable to live in Lutece in their time.

Things changed, however, in the Middle Ages. They are also often called the Dark Ages and for good reason. People took to neglecting personal cleanliness and so there was no question of maintaining any civic hygiene. Everyone threw animal and human waste and wastewater into the unpaved streets or directed it into the fields. The situation was further exacerbated by the draining of all the waste ultimately into the Seine river. So, the streets stank, and the river stank, and the people tolerated living in these stinky environs as a fact of life.

They covered their noses and came up with new fashion ideas to combat pollution. Women took to carrying parasols to ward of garbage thrown from overhead windows. Men, meanwhile, adopted the chivalrous habit of walking closer to the street so that they would get landed with the sewage rather than their ladies.

As the population grew, the Parisian authorities tried to combat the waste problem with cesspits and cesspools. An effort was made to collect all the city waste to deposit them in these. However, many people either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay for this service. It was so much easier to empty the chamber pot out the window. Also, neither the cesspits nor the cesspools worked too well. The cesspits turned the soil fetid and the cesspools were difficult and messy to clean routinely.

This general lack of sanitation and cleanliness was common in most medieval European cities, not just Paris. It was one of the main reasons for the frequent epidemic outbreaks that killed thousands upon thousands of people.

Who built the Sewers of Paris?

Phillipe Auguste ruled France from 1180 to 1223. Sickened by the dirty, muddy streets of Paris, he ordered the civic authorities to pave them. While doing so, he also ordered for a drain in the centre of the streets to take away the wastewater. These were the first official drains in Paris. While they were useful to an extent, their open nature made a stink and the spread of disease unavoidable.

As the civic authorities came to realize this, they began to consider the idea of covered drains and then underground sewers to remove the waste and dirty water from the city precincts.

A Parisian provost named Hugues Aubriot built a stone-made sewer with a vault for wastewater in the Rue Montmartre in 1370. This was the first closed drain in Paris. Known as the Menilmontant sewer, it took wastewater from the Seine’s right bank to the Menilmontant brook.

After the first underground sewer was built in 1370, the French government has continually added, expanded, repaired, and modernized the sewers. You could say that they have remained a work in progress over hundreds of years.

Under King Louis XIV and, later, Napoleon Bonaparte, the Parisian authorities built an extensive system of underground sewers. These were bigger to accommodate the waste generated by the city’s growing population. However, the waste still went into the Seine and, as a result, continued to cause diseases like typhoid and cholera.

It became clear that the city needed a better system of sewers. Napoleon I ordered the construction of a 30 km long sewer network. It was vaulted and was the first Parisian sewer built in this manner.

In 1850, Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, the Prefect for the Seine, began transforming Paris with new, broad boulevards. At this time, they hired Eugene Belgrand, an engineer, to design and oversee the building of new sewers. By 1878, Eugene Belgrand had built a 600 km long new sewer system with one network for drinking water, one network for water for street cleaning, one network for sanitary sewers, and one network for wastewater.

These large-sized, six-feet high drains were made of sandstone and had roads that sewer worker could easily walk on to facilitate sewer-cleaning. Sewer workers used boats to move the sludge in the sewers to barges that then took and deposited it elsewhere. Sometimes the sludge was also removed via manholes.

Belgrand also built a treatment plant to treat the waste. Furthermore, he built aqueducts that brought clean drinking water to the Parisian populace. From 1880 to 1914, more than half of the Parisian buildings were connected to the sewers.

There was a dramatic drop in typhoid and cholera cases in Paris as a result of Belgrand’s new sewer system. The French authorities continued to build this sewer system until 1930. At this point, nearly every Parisian street had a sewer under it. Now, the waste from the sewers was taken to the newly built Acheres treatment plant for industrial sewage treatment.

At one point, gas mains were also installed in the sewers. However, after gas leaks caused explosions inside the sewers, the authorities removed the gas mains.

Modernization of the Sewers of Paris

By 1977, there were 1000 km of new sewers. The Acheres treatment plant became one of the largest of its kind in Europe. The authorities also built other waste treatment plants like Noisy-le-Grand, Valenton, and Colombes.

Sewers of Paris under the Boulevard

Sewers under the Boulevard at the end of the 19th century. (Collection personnelle Scanné par Claude Shoshany)

In the 1990s, the then-Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, undertook the modernization of the sewers. The project cost over 152 million euros. The French authorities repaired many of the existing sewers, built some new ones, and installed a computerised waste management system.

The sewers of Paris in literature

One of the most notable mentions of the Parisian sewers occurs in Victor Hugo’s famous novel from 1862 ‘Les Miserables’. Here, the sewers are part of the story and serve as a hideout as well as a getaway place for the main character. Victor Hugo’s portrayal of the sewers is pretty accurate as he got most of his factual information from Emmanuel Bruneseau, a sewer inspector who mapped the sewers.

The sewers also feature in ‘The Underground City,’ the 1958 novel by H. L. Humes, in ‘The Phantom of the Opera’, in ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ by Umberto Ecco, and in ‘Ratatouille’.

Visiting the sewers of Paris

If you would like to see the sewers of Paris, you can take a guided or self-guided tour of them.

The sewers have been open for public visits since the World Expo held in Paris in 1867. There is now a Paris Sewers Museum from which you can take a stairway down to the sewers. Except for Thursday and Friday, it is open throughout the week from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Sewers museum

Paris sewers museum. (Shadowgate / Flickr)

Formerly, tourists could see how the sewers worked by taking a tour via suspended carts, locomotive-drawn carriages, and underground boats. Now you can walk through them and look at historic photographs and old machinery that was once used to clean the sewers. The latter includes large metal balls that water pressure pushed through the sewers to removed clogged debris.

The tour takes about 30 minutes and is, largely, stink-free.

Note: Currently, the sewers museum is closed for renovation until 2020.

Fact Analysis:
STSTW Media strives to deliver accurate information through careful research. However, things can go wrong. If you find the above article inaccurate or biased, please let us know at [email protected]


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