The various attempts to solve the problem of water supply in the city of Recife started at the beginning of the 19th Century.
Law nº 46on 14 June 1837 authorised the contracting of a company to supply drinking water to the city’s inhabitants.
One year later, in June 1838, a contract was signed between the Companhia do Beberibe (Beberibe Company) and the Provincial Government to provide Recife with a piped water service.
With a starting capital of four hundred ‘contos de reis’, the Beberibe Company’s first president was José Ramos de Oliveira and its Deliberate Council was composed by eight members.
From 1842 to 1848, a design by Brazilian engineers Conrado Jacob Niemeyer and Pedro de Alcântara Bellegarde was implemented, which included the water captivation services of the Prata Reservoir, located in the Dois Irmãos neighbourhood, with a 10km-long aqueduct, 300mm piping and water distribution through eight fountains.
These fountains were located in Boa Vista Square, on the approach to Boa Vista Bridge, at the Carmo Patio, the Paraíso Patio, inRibeira, at thePasseio Público, inTrempe (the intersection of today’s Barão de São Borja St and Soledade St) and in Soledade. At the fountains, the price of water was twenty ‘réis’ per thirty-litre bucket.
A piece under the title ‘Variedades’ (Miscellaneous), signed by De L. (Louis-Léger Vauthier), in the Recife Magazine ‘O Progresso’ (volume 1, no. 1, July 1846) talks about the Beberibe Company’s work:
Onthe 21st of last month of May was the inauguration of the water tankand of the first three provisory fountains, constructed in Boa-Vista by the Bibiribe company. This result, the first child of the association in Pernambuco, would not have occurred without the great work, strength in character and resolute patience of those illustrious people who make up the directory of the company; [...] When the inauguration was held, for some weeks the iron pipes had led water to the tank; but even so, when it filled for the first time, allowing some water to exude – which without doubt is due to be it being made of brick and not stone – it was necessary to grout its inside with layers of bitumen, which seemed to be a satisfactory result. [...]
This large reservoir (or water tank), that brought piped water to the city centre, was known as Caixad’água da Boa Vista (Boa Vista Water Tank) and was located on Pires St, where today stands the Hotel Central (Manoel Borba Ave).
In 1848, the Provincial Government granted the Beberibe company the exclusive right to supply water to the city of Recife for 35 years, as long as the supply was through fountains.
At Boa Vista Square, a large fountain was also constructed, known as the Imperial fountain, as well as in various Recife neighbourhoods, meeting the constant requests of the population who wanted their houses supplied with drinkable water. Even the Governor’s Palace, through an order dated 25 October 1859, requested the Beberibe Company to construct a fountain in the ‘Largo da Presidência’ (today the Park of the República), before the royal family’s arrival in Pernambuco.
The Company was obliged, through the contract with the Provincial Government, to supply the water from its fountains for free in the case of fire, however without being obligated to open the shut valves in the water mains.
For the supply of domestic water, a water-metering system was used based on one thousand litres daily. Small residences only had the right to a third of this amount. This metering system was a consumption limiter, and to make the most of the water, the consumer had to have a water tank to accumulate it. Santa Casa de Misericórdia (a charity hospital)and federal, state and municipal public organs had the right to lower prices.
The costs for installing the plumbing extensions were paid for by whoever contracted the service.
In 1873, the Company increased the number of fountains to a total of 22. In the same year, besides fountains, it supplied water to 103 houses in the areas of Poço da Panela, Capungaand Afogados, as well as another two million litres to Boa Vista, Santo Antonio, São José and Recife.
That same year, another private company, the Recife Drainage Company Limited, was created with the purpose of providing a sewage treatment service to the city.
Three years later, in 1876, engineer Gervásio Rodrigues Campelo completed the construction of a new aqueduct, equal to the first.
With a population of approximately 70,000 inhabitants at the time, the water supplied to the city was insufficient, mainly because it was also used to clean the sewage system and there was a lot of waste.
Looking to increase its supply capacity, the Company managed to get some changes and extensions in the contracts with the Provincial Government.
It implemented an new design by English engineer Oswald Brown, building a filtering plant on the left bank of the Prata reservoir, in a total of eight wells at the reservoir, with a capacity of 5,000 cubic metres daily, 70km of distribution networks and the Alto de Dois Irmãos reservoir.
In 1887, the Dois Irmãos Plant was ready for service, where a 75m-tall reservoir had been constructed. With this was a considerable improvement in the high-pressure water distribution system.
Conscious of the constant increase in population, which in 1884 had already risen to 80,000, the Beberibe Company carried out new studies and projects to increase water supply to Recife.
In 1891, a project by engineer Augusto Devoto appeared, which proposed to utilise the Utingaand Pitanga streams, situated on the Monjope plantation, to increase water capture. Due to the high cost of the project, however, and despite having purchased the two waterways, the Company could not implement the project.
With the increase in complaints by the population against the service and without the ability to supply the quantity of water required by the city, as well as problems with quality arising in that which was being supplied, the Beberibe Company entered into dire financial strife.
Frequent cases began to appear of intense stomach aches with vomiting, compromising the central nervous systems, kidneys and hearts of people.
There were several arguments from doctors linked to the area of public health in Recife, among them Octávio de Freitas, as the cause of the problem.
The Beberibe Company was accused of supply water to residences with a high level of lead due to the pipes being used. People who drew water from fountains were not suffering from stomach complaints, as these did not contain lead.
Areport written by doctors José Francisco Martins Sobrinho, Alfredo d’Aquino Gaspar, Raul Azedo and Ermírio Coutinhoon 17 February 1900, proved scientifically that the sickness was caused by the lead salts present in the water, making the Company have to substitute the lead pipes from inside houses with iron ones.
In 1909, Pernambuco Governor Herculano Bandeira invited engineer Francisco Saturnino Rodrigues de Britoto take over the direction of the recently-created Sanitation Commission, with the objective of improving the water supply and sewage systems to adequately meet the growth and development of Recife.
From 1900, it was claimed that the Beberibe Company no longer was able to meet the city’s water demands. In addition to this, in 1911, a clandestine syphon was discovered that transported swamp water from an unsuitable waterway to another suitable one to increase its volume, being placed at night and removed the following morning.
With daily complaints from the population and the incapacity to supply the required water, including for washing the sewers, the State Government, on 1 October 1912, incorporated the Beberibe Company into the Directory of Roads and Public Works, and later into the Sanitation Commission, shutting down the organ that for over seventy years was responsible for Recife’s water supply.
During the Dantas Barreto government, on 12 December 1915, the new sewage service planned by Saturnino de Britowas inaugurated, and on 14 April 1918, so was a new water supply system using the Gurjaú River, one of the Pirapama River’s tributaries.
Recife, 31 may 2010.
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2012.
BRITO, F. Saturnino Rodrigues de. Saneamento de Recife. Recife: Typ. Da Imprensa Official, 1917.
EVOLUÇÃO histórica do saneamento em Pernambuco. Disponível em:< http://www.compesa.com.br/index.php?option=content&task=view&id=31>. Acesso em: 27 maio 2010.
JUCÁ, Joselice V. Uma companhia urbana de Pernambuco no século XIX: a do Beberibe. Ciência & Trópico, Recife, v. 3, n. 1, p. 25-39, jan./jun. 1975.
PARAHYM, Orlando. História do abastecimento d’água do Recife. Recife: Secretaria de Educação e Cultura, 1960. (Cadernos de Pernambuco, 13).
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Source: GASPAR, Lúcia. The Beberibe Company. Pesquisa Escolar Online, Joaquim Nabuco Foudation, Recife. Available at: <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar/>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 Aug. 2009