Water and Well-Being in Colonial Rio De Janeiro: 1500-1900

Alida Metcalf, Rice University

Every city has a complex relationship with water that is tightly interwoven with human well-being. This especially true for colonial cities, which typically are highly stratified, and which may or may not have been situated in places with easy access to water. Why write the history of water in a colonial city? Wouldn’t the time better be spent finding solutions to modern problems with water? Because water infrastructure is inevitably built on what came before, the history of water in any city must be understood as we face the present and imagine the future. This paper focuses on Rio de Janeiro and will discuss and map four eras of water management. In era one, pre-colonial times, generations had learned to live with local waters, understanding their seasons, patterns, powers, and influence on human well-being. In era two, early colonial times, new residents began to separate their settlements from the (to them) unfamiliar environment. The first settlements were forts, walled off from the environment. As the original acropolis of Rio grew, it faced severe water shortages and human well-being declined dramatically. In era three, high colonial times, city leaders developed a water infrastructure that on paper delivered excellent water to the city through aqueducts and fountains. But deep social inequalities prevented this water from being shared equally among all residents, leading to distinctly different outcomes in human well-being. In era four, early post-colonial times, the city sought to improve access to clean water and to install sanitary sewage disposal. Because of longstanding inequalities, such improvements did not extend to the entire population, and human well-being for all was not achieved. The paper will be organized around four original maps that will depict the relationship between humans and water in Rio de Janeiro from 1500 to 1900.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 32. Presidential Session: Environmental Justice and Public Health