Geneva today is a town of 250,000 inhabitants. Its population 15 years ago was 195,000. Geneva is not an industrial centre: it is a centre of paper work, of contracts, deals, plans, treaties, agreements, reports. Most of these emanate from organizations dedicated in one way or another to international co-operation and exchange: the United Nations, the International Red Cross, the International Labour Office, etc. Beside the governmental international agencies, there are also many multinational companies and banks. Geneva—perhaps more exclusively than any other town in Europe—is a capital of words: words written in reports and on cheques: spoken words, interpreted and recorded. All of them relate to what is happening in the rest of the world; and many of them go out into the world as recommendations. During the last 15 years the number of words has much increased and, correspondingly, the town has grown.
This is particularly evident to the north, in the area around the original League of Nations building and the new airport. Here new offices, new flats for their employees, new shops, new hotels for delegates, new roads and new parking-lots have extended far into what, 15 years ago, were woods and fields. At that time the rain and snow which fell soaked into the earth. Today, in the new built-up area, the gutter water has to be run away. The existing drains and catchments for the north of the town are already overworked. The town and canton of Geneva therefore instructed their engineering department to work out a plan.
The plan was ambitious and progressive. It foresaw continuing growth: it considered the question of pollution: it resisted the temptation of a merely ad hoc and temporary solution and it was not timid about investing the taxpayers’ money. The estimated cost of the new plan was £5 million. (It will cost far more.) It proposed a drainage system which would serve, not only the new suburbs, but all that part of Geneva which lies on the right bank of the lake.
To install drainage at street level would have seriously dislocated traffic—local and international—over a period of years. It would also have rendered new building more difficult—by overcrowding the network of pipes and services just below the surface. So the plan envisaged tunnelling thirty or more metres underground.
One tunnel was to run for 5 km under the town and would collect all the rain and gutter water of the right bank and discharge it into the Rhone below the lake. A second tunnel was to run parallel with the first for more than half the way, and would carry electricity and telephone cables and water mains for the new buildings and the new offices in which so many plans on a world-scale were being drawn up. The diameter of each tunnel was to be 3·6 metres.
Tunnelling began in June 1971 and will continue until 1976. In tunnelling space restricts the amount of labour that can be used. Even with three faces being worked simultaneously, there is work for only 100 men. Most of the men now working are Yugoslavs. There are also Spaniards and some Italians from South Italy. On the many building sites in Geneva most workers are migrants. In the tunnels they are 100 per cent migrant. The two engineers and one of the foremen are German.
The workers, except for a specialist mechanic and electrician, are on nine-month contracts. When the contract finishes they return to their Bosnian or Andalusian or Calabrian villages and then re-apply for another year’s chance of tunnelling under the international metropolis. According to Swiss law the residence-permits (Type A) of these workers do not permit them to stay longer than nine months (although they may continue to come year after year) nor to bring with them any of their family. While working in Geneva, they live in a wooden barracks belonging to the Swiss private contractors who are building the tunnel.