Belgium (1)
(Click on thumbnails to enlarge image)

The first sewers in the Brussels area were made in 1660 -- very primitive tubular or square tunnels, connecting houses to small rivers like the Maalbeek and Woluwé. Residents encountered a lot of problems with these early sewers, which were frequently blocked with sand and dirt.

In 1830, the Belgian revolution took place in Brussels, and on July 21, 1831, Leopold I, the first King of the Belgians, ascended the throne, undertaking the destruction of the city walls and the construction of many buildings in Brussels. Under Leopold II, the city underwent many more changes including an improved sewer system.

The Senne River, the catchment for wastewater in the Brussels area for centuries, was essentially an open sewer and the source of epidemics in the area since the 16th century. In the 19th century, it remained a visual and medical blight on the Brussels city center, a source of flooding, and an embarrassment to the new government. From 1867 to 1871, a section of the Senne River was covered in a project designed by the architect Leon Suys and constructed under the direction of the mayor of Brussels, Jules Anspach, by a private English company. The river then disappeared under Lemonnier and Anspach boulevards (the latter the biggest avenue in Brussels and named after the mayor). In 1877, the river was covered further from the Brussels Zuid station to the Brussels North station (the 19th century locations -- both have since moved). At that point, a large section of the river in the city center was completely covered, essentially making it into a permanent sewer.

The Senne River was diverted to a new location between 1930 and 1950 and completely covered from the rue des Vétérinaires to Quai des Usines. The old Senne tunnels were then used for the "pre-metro," an underground tramway. The Metro began using these tunnels only in 1960. Some parts of the old Senne tunnels are now completely unused, except as basins for storm water. Today, few people even know there is a river in Brussels, which is why Brussels is sometimes called a city which hides its river. (See la Senne website and Wikipedia for more information about the Senne, both in French. We have made very rough translations using Altavista's Babelfish for reference only: la Senne and Wikipedia.)

After the original covering of the Senne, Anspach and other mayors in the Brussels area built a real sewer network. (Brussels is made of 19 cities under different administrations.) These sewers are largely made with ovoid shapes and are connected to rivers for sewage disposal -- as in other large European cities of the time. The sewer system is similar in many ways to the Paris and London sewers (raised walkways for sewer workers, oval-shaped brick tunnels, use of sluice-gate cars for cleaning), and is part of the European revolution in sewer design of the last half of the 1800s.

The period from 1935 to 1955 saw intensive changes. Two big collectors were constructed, skirting the old Senne tunnels to the west and east and collecting the city's storm water and sewage. The west collector is two kilometers long and the east one is nine kilometers long; the west collector connects to the east one in a city called Schaerbeek. In this very large combined collector, the gutter is two meters deep and three meters wide -- an impressive flow. In the (very near) past, all flow was delivered into the Senne River in a city called Neder-Over-Hembeek. From there, it went to Antwerpen and on to the sea.

The sewers in Brussels are all "combined sewers" ("unique tunnels" in the author's words), which combine sewage and storm water, unlike most modern cities using separate tunnels for each source. In surrounding cities, sewers are extremely recent (from the 1980s). Administration of the outer cities is not the same as the city center and is always changing, creating problems with regional administration of the sewer system. In the last few years, some changes made include a new grid inside the network, and even lasers and alarms (not commonly found in sewer systems).

The Brussels area remained without any wastewater treatment throughout the 20th century, though a wastewater management plan was developed in the 1980s. The Brussels-South plant went online in 2000, treating wastewater for about one-third of the Brussels area. The Brussels-North plant, called Aquiris, went online in 2007 and efforts finally began to restore sections of the Senne River.

While the treatment system has entered the modern age, the aging tunnel system is in critical need of repair. Brussels has approximately 1,500 kilometres of sewers that currently need serious attention. An estimated 500 kilometres of sewers need to be completely replaced. (See www.expatica.com.)

50 people work each day in Brussels to clean sewers and storm basins -- very difficult work because the sewer slopes are generally too low, causing settling of solids and blockages. To compound the problem, Brussels is built on sand -- you can easily guess the problems encountered when sand enters the minimally sloped sewers. The Brussels sewermen clean sewers with pressurized water and using sluice-gate cars (see photos below), which essentially block the sewer channel, building up water pressure behind the cars and pushing settled solids to a collection point using only water power. Similar cars were used in the Paris sewers as well.

There are 350 kilometers of sewers in the city of Brussels (the metropolitan center only) that are accessible to humans. Most are ovoid shapes (a design pioneered in London), about 90 centimeters high. Sewers in Brussels are very different from sewers in other large cities, like London or Paris, because traditional methods are still used to work them, and there are very few machines, so the sewermen have direct contact with the sewers. They don't generally work with computers, but in real tunnels. They see a lot of old quarters, largely built with bricks -- in some eyes beautiful, as the photographer featured below shows.

Information from Vincent Duseigne, Wikipedia and the Aquiris website.

   


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Vincent Duseigne

For a unique look at the sewers of Belgium, see Egouts de Bruxelles, a website featuring numerous photos of the sewers and drains of Brussels by photographer Vincent Duseigne. Additional sewer, drain, and aqueduct photos can be found at his underground exploration website. Many of his photos are displayed below.

The Senne River in Brussels

The heavily polluted Senne River before it was covered. See information above about the history of the Senne -- a river that was made into a permanent sewer.

Source: la Senne website. Rough English translation by Altavista's Babelfish here.

Covering of the Senne River in Brussels, Belgium, circa 1867.

Source: Wikipedia. Rough English translation by Altavista's Babelfish here.

Covering of the Senne River in Brussels, Belgium, circa 1867.

Source: la Senne website. Rough English translation by Altavista's Babelfish here.

Cartoon showing Mayor Jules Anspach dancing with the Senne. The project was unpopular with displaced residents, taxpayers who saw their rates rise, and engineers who opposed the culvertization of the river. It also suffered from an embezzlement scandal involving the English company hired to build it, leading to unfavorable caricatures in the press.

Source: From l'Espiègle, 8 March 1868, found on Wikipedia. Rough English translation by Altavista's Babelfish here.

The Senne River at the Brussels-North Treatment Plant (Aquiris -- see above). Photo date 2007.

Source: Wikimedia/Ben2. Rough English translation by Altavista's Babelfish here.






Photos 1, 2, 3: The old Senne tunnel, now largely abandoned or used as catch-basins for storm water. You can recognize the old tunnel from its brick construction, oval form and very large size.

Photos 4, 5, 6: the Senne River today.

Photos 7, 8: The Senne River runs behind these doors.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org.

Sewer Workers in Brussels, Belgium

Sewermen pulling a sluice-gate car ("wagon-vanne") in a collector in Brussels, Belgium. This and the following photos were taken for the Brussels Sewer Museum.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Sewermen preparing to lower a large plate on the sluice-gate car into the collector. This plate reduces/stops flow and builds up water pressure to the point where it pushes the car, cleaning settled solids out of the channel as it goes. The car continues to a collection point where the solids can be removed. No motor is used, only water pressure.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Workers pulling a sluice-gate car. By the time a sluice-gate car has reached the end of a collector (after going as far as nine kilometers), just one truck may be pushing 2500 tons of settled solids to the water treatment plant. When a car reaches the end point, there are two solutions: 1) A crane extracts the gate-car to the surface, and a big truck conveys it to a new start point; or 2) Workers pull it -- really back-breaking work, because even the smallest car weighs three tons, and some are much bigger. When sewermen have finished pulling one, they're allowed to do a big barbecue!

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Sewermen checking that the gate balloons are in a good shape. These balloons control the gate opening if the water level rises too high. If this is the case, water goes into an enormous tank, 27 meters below Bourse (Beurs) in Brussels.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

A clearing pipe in a house connection.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Cleaning a sewer.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Oval sewers are flushed with pressurized water.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

Sequence of shots: Descending into a power room, on-off system for pumps, and the pump room, only accessible through the metro tunnels.

Source: Vincent Duseigne, tchorski.morkitu.org, Belgium.

   


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