Gaining a New Appreciation for Water in Lisbon

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Semester at Sea
Oct 3, 2013


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Education, Sustainability

Gaining a New Appreciation for Water in Lisbon

Wiley Conte of the Univ. of Vermont stands on the top of Lisbon's Águas Livres Aqueduct, also called the Arco Grande, once a major distributor of water to Lisbon.

Each day at sea, Assistant Executive Dean Rita Enders gives the voyagers on the Fall 2013 voyage a report on the water consumption for the day before: “Fresh water consumption yesterday, 64 gallons per person,” Enders announced during a transit day in Spain. “On the Fall 2012 voyage it was 55 gallons per person,” she noted. Water on the MV Explorer is limited. According to the US Geological Survey (USGS) the average person uses about 80-100 gallons per day. Enders’ report is a way to keep voyagers on the ship aware of how much water is being used and/or wasted.

“Just because we’re sailing around on the ocean doesn’t mean we have an infinite supply of water,” explains Enders.

Water is fast becoming an economic commodity throughout the world and, in the future, may be negotiated for the way oil is today. According to the nonprofit water.org, three times more people in the world lack potable water than the number of people who live in the U.S.

Prof. Joao Oliviera (bottom right), a chemistry professor at the University of Aveiro, in Porto, Portugal, explains aspects of the city's water system to SAS students as they stand at the top of the famous aqueduct.

“Access to water is a major problem in many parts of the world,” said Prof. Ralph Allen, a chemistry and environmental health professor at UVa, who’s teaching courses on water, forensic science and environmental health on this 50th anniversary voyage.

In Prof. Allen’s class, Water for the World, students are examining issues of water distribution and contamination and ways in which cities and rural areas have either brought water to their area or are struggling to do so.

The goal is to have students learn how water is managed in each of the countries. Throughout their travels in Europe students learned about water treatment, disposal, and management in urban areas. They discovered that water is distributed and managed in cities like St. Petersburg, Hamburg, Antwerp, Le Havre, and Dublin very much like it is in the U.S.

In Lisbon, the students visited the city’s former aqueduct system—enormous, old, and beautifully built structures that brought trickles of water to 18th-century Portugal and continued well into the 19th Century. Attempts to bring water to Lisbon date back to the 1500s when the city was bursting with over 100,000 people and relied on wells and springs, pulling some water from nearby Sintra.

“I chose Lisbon because it’s a very old city that has been dealing with the issue of transferring water for a long, long time. But it hasn’t always done this in the best way,” Allen explained.

Lisbon's Águas Livres Aqueduct stands at over 200 feet high and 100 feet wide. It was also used as a means of crossing from one side of the city to the other during the 19th century.

For example, he noted that, when Portugal joined the European Union in 1986, the country had to install better water treatment facilities and stop running the sewage in to the ocean.

For most of the field lab, the students focused on how old Portugal—of the 18th and 19th centuries—received and distributed water. Their first stop was the Águas Livres Aqueduct, built in the 1700s and considered Lisbon’s first monument and among its most remarkable work of hydraulic engineering. Despite its massive size—over 213 feet high and 100 feet wide with 35 arches—the aqueduct brought only 14 liters of water per person per day to the city.

Next was the Mãe d’Água das Amoreiras Reservoir, part of the Águas Livres Aqueduct, and used to capture water that was eventually distributed through the full aqueduct. Students wound their way through the expansive underground tunnels where water once flowed along narrow troughs. Water from the reservoir also flowed to fountains throughout the city, where residents filled buckets to bring back to their homes.

“I was very interested walking through all those tunnels and seeing how they brought water from so far away so long ago.” said Donna Peebles, a lifelong learner who registered to take Prof. Allen’s class.

Carl Hughes of Oregon State University, Prof. Ralph Allen and Rosemarie Laughlin of Florida State University listen to Portuguese Prof. Joao Oliviera explain the architecture of the Lisbon aqueduct.

The visit to the aqueduct and hearing of Lisbon’s history of water supply, demand, and distribution gave Carl Hughes, a civil engineering major at Oregon State University, a new perspective on viewing water distribution.

“It seems like we should move away from a centralized water supply system,” he said. “It didn’t seem to work for Lisbon and I think it would be a good idea to make a couple of smaller water plants and stations in different areas of each city.”

A sophomore at Oregon State, Carl is still searching for what he’d like to do in the future. “Getting out and seeing things like this [aqueduct] up close are also helpful to understand how different cultures solve real problems.”

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