Sue Burke (mount_oregano) wrote,
Sue Burke

How Madrid gets its water

This post is part of Blog Action Day, an annual event held every October 15 that unites the world’s bloggers in posting about the same issue on the same day with the aim of sparking a global discussion and driving collective action. This year's topic is water.

According to an old saying, Madrid, Spain, was "founded over water," and Madrid's name comes from its water: the matrice or "mother" arroyos and springs flowing with water that made it an attractive place for the Moors to erect a fortress in 852 A.D. Soon a village grew up around it and became renowned for the quality of its farm fields and gardens.

Madrid's patron saint, San Isidro (c.1080-1172), was a farm worker famous for the gift of detecting springs and ideal places for wells. Islamic civil engineers also created a system of underground galleries and pipes called viages de agua or "water voyages" that channeled water from springs and wells northwest of the village to serve its residents.

Christians conquered Madrid in 1085, and in 1202 it was granted its first municipal charter. The city of 10,000 people grew slowly until 1561, when King Felipe II named it the capital of Spain because of its central location. Four decades later, the population was 85,000. Though the viajes were continuously enlarged and extended, drinking water remained a problem, especially during droughts, which were frequent.

Water brought in by the viajes filled public fountains where the population got its water, bucket by bucket: 43 fountains in 1727. Households also bought water from aguadores or "water sellers" who transported water in jugs on their back, in handcarts, or by mule or horse.

Other aguadores carried a jug and cup and roamed the city on foot, shouting "Fresh water!" The painter Velázquez depicted one in his 1618 painting "El Aguador de Sevilla."

The city continued to grow, as did the need for water, and by the early 1600s, the shortage of potable water had already become apparent. Continued expansions of the viajes did not keep up with the need. In addition, people were demanding more and more water to satisfy changes in public and private ideas of hygiene. By 1850, about 50 viajes provided 10 liters of potable per day for a population that had grown to 200,000, and it was not enough.

In 1851, Prime Minister Juan Bravo Murillo wrote, "Madrid's existence is threatened by the shortage of water, and the government cannot remain any longer as a mere spectator to the current suffering of its inhabitants or await with indifference the calamities that threaten a large, fast-growing population."

Later that year, Queen Isabel II ordered the creation of the Canal de Isabel II, a public works project to create reservoirs in the Lozoya River far northwest of Madrid and to bring that water to the city. It was a big project that first needed the infrastructure to carry it out. One small detail involved setting up dovecots along the route for a rapid communication system: carrier pigeons.

By 1858, the first public fountain was opened with great fanfare. Over time, the Canal, which is now the public water utility, has expanded. Now, it serves 6 million people with 14 reservoirs, 81 wells, 22 large water tanks and 240 small tanks, 12 treatment plants, and 150 sewerage treatment plants.

In some ways, though, nothing has changed. The water flows to the city, one way or another, from the mountains and their aquifer north and west of the city, which get far more rain and snow than the plains. The climate is Mediterranean, which means that in the summer there can be little rain, and it's semi-arid, so there's never enough rain. Sometimes there are droughts. The reservoirs help maintain a regular supply, but they rarely get full even in the wettest years.

During a recent severe drought, the city and its residents had to cut back on water use 10 percent, and the scare was bad enough to change habits for good. But climate change models predict eventually more heat and less rain for Madrid, and the city keeps growing. Will there be enough water in the future? I won't live long enough to find out. If not, it will be the return of an old problem, and it may require totally new solutions.

— Sue Burke

Tags: political

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