Heritage waterways recognised by Unesco (Europe)

The Canal du Midi (in Southern France) and the Canal du Centre in Wallonia are both on the prestigious list of World Heritage sites promoted by UNESCO. The World Heritage Centre granted this label to the Midi in 1996 and to the Belgian canal, with its four hydraulic barge lifts,two years later.

These decisions have given worldwide credibility to canals as irreplaceable heritage of humanity, and have contributed to creating a network of historic canals throughout the world. This idea, and the principles of preserving this unique heritage, are being promoted by the association Inland Waterways International and by the partners of the European project TERRA - VEV (Voies d'Eau Vivantes).

The listing rewards the close partnership forged and maintained for 20 years between the Walloon Ministry of Equipment and Transport, managing the waterways, and the Compagnie du Canal du Centre, founded in 1980.

Since they were built between 1888 and 1917, the four lifts over the 7km length of the Canal du Centre have been carefully maintained. They were nonetheless under the threat of closure for many years, redundancy looming as large as the giant lift at Strépy-Thieu (in the background of our illustration).The appropriation of space freed by the abandonment of a canal for other uses, in the first place building new roads at reduced cost, is clearly an experience common to many countries. Just as the Toulouse city council had been planning to infill the Canal du Midi a few years earlier, the riparian communities of the Canal du Centre were planning the demise of their canal in the 1970s.

It was to stop all such ambitions that the Compagnie du Canal du Centre started organising visits in 1980, after Jean-Pierre Gailliez, riparian but until then little aware of the wealth and even less of the vulnerability of this heritage, had discovered the recently-closed Anderton lift in the UK. The interest shown by the non-specialist public has been instrumental in creating a slow but profound shift in official attitudes.

Thanks to this listing, the "heritage route" will remain open to navigation. Local players have shown how an enhanced, animated canal, used daily by boats of all kinds, is the best way to pay tribute to the genius of the canal builders of the 19th century (and earlier).



(Left) The new 73m high
Strépy lift in the background

(Right) Hydraulic barge lift n°4 (Thieu)
on the historic Canal du Centre.