The canal connects the Garonne River (which flows into the Atlantic) to the Étang de Thau (a lagoon in the Mediterranean) and along with the 193 km long Canal de Garonne it connects the Atlantic to the Mediterranean.
The idea of linking the Garonne to the Mediterranean by a canal dates back to Antiquity under the Emperor Augustus and other kings in the middle ages such as Charlemagne, Francois I and then Henry IV thought about it.
The initial objective was to build a maritime canal in order to facilitate the transit of goods by linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea without having to circumnavigate Spain via the Strait of Gibraltar which represented a journey of more than 3000 km. The transit of the goods would therefore be faster but also safer because the circumnavigation of Spain exposed the ships to the pirates who took advantage of the little defense they had.
But the goal was not only economic! It was also military and political because the passage of Gibraltar was controlled by the Kingdom of Spain which was then very powerful and was getting richer with each crossing of the strait. This is an excellent example of an engineering project that is aligned to the vision and strategy of a country. Since ages, the kings of France had the vision and numerous strategies to make France rich and powerful. One of their stratagem was to build a canal to make it easy and cheaper to transport goods from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and to avoid the harassment of the kingdom of Spain. In many organizations, there are a lot of projects which are not aligned to the strategy and over all goals of an organization.
Many realistic projects were presented to the King in the 16th century. However, these projects were abandoned because they did not give enough thought to the water supply for the canal and provided a system of diversion of water from Pyrénées rivers too complex or impossible to implement. The projects were not launched for fear of losing too much money and the conviction of the human impossibility to dig such a canal. The major problem was how to supply the summit sections with enough water. So, what can we learn from this? If one is not sure about the ability to deliver a project and if resources are lacking it is better to not launch a project. This also illustrates that all the alternatives should be evaluated and analyzed before deciding.
At the same time, Pierre-Paul Riquet, a wealthy collector of salt tax in Languedoc region dreamt about the canal his whole life. He devoted his time and considerable powers of invention to finding the solution to one of the most vexing architectural problems of the century- how to keep the canal full of water? Riquet discovered several rivers that could be channeled to feed the canal at its highest point. But he also would need to control the flow of water all year round. So, he thought of an innovative solution – the building of a huge reservoir – the Saint Ferriol reservoir (basin de Saint Ferriol). It was the largest dam ever built in those days. To convince King Louis, he sketched out his idea into blue prints and presented them in the court. Seeing the potential for generating revenue, the sun king sponsored the project.
He proposed a more convincing project than his predecessors. When Louis XIV received his proposal in 1662 he saw the opportunity to deprive Spain of part of its resources, and the opportunity to mark his reign with an imperishable work. In project management terms, he is an excellent role model for project planning. How many of you take the time to plan effectively your projects?
In 1666, without any engineering background Riquet began the work on the canal. Even though he lacked technical skills he had compelling project vision and was a great project manager. For example: at the peak of the building he led a workforce of 12000 including 600 women because the shortage of men. To ensure the reliability of the workforce and the success of the project he paid well above the going rate, provided affordable housing, gave holidays and paid for sick leave. In other words, He introduced an early form of social security. He was well ahead of his time. In other words, he was a project manager who took care of his team.
The Canal du Midi is one of the many architectural marvels of French engineering. It was one of the important construction projects of the 17th century as It paved the way for the 19th century industrial revolution. Today it is still one of the oldest canals of Europe still in operation.