Rio’s Waterworks

The other day a friend of mine, a colleague from our choir, launched his second book at the Livraria Travessa, in Shopping Leblon. His name is Victor Coelho, and he worked all his professional life with water and the control of pollution. He ended up as President of FEEMA – Fundação Estadual de Engenharia do Meio Ambiente. His first book was called “Guanabara Bay, a story of Environmental Aggression”, and the new book is called “Paraíba do Sul – a Strategic River”. 

The book tells the history of Rio’s water supply, from the early harnessing of streams from nearby hills, bringing the water to the center of the city over aqueducts such as the Arcos da Lapa, for distribution to its inhabitants – when the population was in the hundreds – to the days of the Empire when water became scarce and more serious measures had to be taken to supply a population of 522,000. In 1889, the city was literally dying of thirst, and Dom Pedro II put out an urgent invitation to bid for a project to bring water to the city in great quantities but in a very short time. A 29-year-old engineer, Paulo de Frontin, bettered all the contestants by promising to bring millions of liters of water per day to Rio, and this he would do in six days. They laughed at him, but Dom Pedro was intrigued by the idea, and decided to give the man a chance.

Paulo de Frontin hired thousands of workers, used the railway to transport the heavy pipes, and delivered 16 million liters per day, brought from the waterfalls of the river Tinguá, in the Serra do Comércio, through a pipeline laid beside the railway tracks of the Estrada de Ferro Rio d’Ouro, to the Represa do Barrelão, one of the reservoirs that supplied Rio with water, in precisely six days.  

Many rivers run through the state of Rio de Janeiro, forming the Paraíba do Sul river basin, and many pipelines have been laid to distribute the water to various parts of the state. Many dams have been built, and the first hydroelectric plant was constructed at the start of the 20th century. The first concession to supply electric power to Rio was granted to a British businessman, William Reid, in 1899. In 1905 the concession was transferred to Canadian lawyer Alexander Mackenzie, a name anyone with connections to the British School in Rio will recognize. The company we know as the “Light” was thus born, but with the more complicated name of “The Rio de Janeiro Tramway, Light and Power Co. Ltd.”. Mackenzie was joined by American engineer Frederick Pearson, and financier Percival Farquhar. 

The dam and reservoir at Ribeirão das Lajes were amongst the largest in the world at the time, and the six generators – with one always in reserve – produced 22,000 kW, calculated by Pearson to keep Rio supplied with power for the next five years. Since then there have been many engineering projects, more dams, reservoirs and hydroelectric plants. There has also been a lot of controversy over Rio’s water. People who come from countries where you simply put a glass under the tap when you need a drink of water, are usually unwilling to do the same here. In fact you can. Rio’s water has been extensively tested and proved to be pure for drinking. Unfortunately one of the reasons for this is the amount of chemicals used in the treatment plants, so it doesn’t taste so good. Tourists usually go for bottled (mineral) water, but that is an expensive solution for us permanent residents. There are dozens of different filters on the market, from the simple ceramic filter in a double earthenware vessel, to the modern multi-processor, activated carbon, hydromagnetic filters/water purifiers, that produce pure and if you pay more, iced water. The main reason for the filter is to improve the taste of the water, and remove any rust or other matter that has accumulated in the pipes of your house or apartment building. 

The purity of non-drinking water, i.e. river and bay water, is another matter, and my friend Victor spent most of his life trying to improve it. Much has been done, but lots of rivers flow into the bay, and the industries along those rivers are not always too careful with their waste matter. We can only hope that one day the waters of the bay will be blue and pure, as they were when the Portuguese first came over the bar and named the new settlement River of January.