At the Museum of Water

Tom Overton

The Chafariz d’El Rei (King’s Fountain) in Lisbon by an anonymous Flemish artist, c.1570-80

Antonio Tabucchi’s ghostly Lisbon novel Requiem: A Hallucination (1991, translated by Margaret Jull Costa) describes a recipe as ‘a first-class lesson in material culture … someone should have told Herr Jung that food always comes before the imagination.’ There’s a display in the city’s Museu da Agua that shows how much clean water we each use every day. To make three cups of coffee, one glass of milk, one glass of orange juice and one glass of wine requires enough water to fill a hundred bathtubs.

The focus of the museum is the astonishing Aguas Livres aqueduct. The building work, along the route of an ancient Roman structure, began in 1731 and was financed by João V through a tax on olive oil, wine and meat. On 1 November 1755, an earthquake, tsunami and fires flattened much of the city, killed around 100,000 people and led Voltaire to declare ‘the sad and ancient truth, recognised by all men, that evil walks the earth’. In the 18th century, the word ‘Lisbon’, according to the moral philosopher Susan Neiman, came to be used ‘much as we use the word Auschwitz today’:

it takes no more than the name of a place to mean: the collapse of the most basic trust in the world, the grounds that make civilisation possible.

The aqueduct survived. By the mid-19th century it was 58 km long; the water it brought in from the north-west of the city was used until the mid 1960s.

The older half of the museum is a 19th-century pump-house with perfectly preserved steam-powered machinery shipped in from Rouen; all polished brass and wood, spiral staircases, valves, and the general atmosphere of the engine-room of the Titanic. The newer half is a series of stories and statistics flowing round a bright blue, mirror-ceilinged room. In the municipal law of 1551, it tells us, access to water at the Chafariz d’El Rei was segregated into six spouts along race, class, and gender lines: the first for ‘slaves, freedmen, black people, mulattoes and Indians’, the second for galley slaves, the third and fourth for white men and boys, the fifth for ‘black and mulatto women and Indian women, both freed and captive’, the sixth for white women and girls. A different panel suggests that, if it is not managed sustainably, ‘a new conflict of worldwide dimensions’ could be fought over the liquid freshwater that constitutes 0.0103 per cent of the earth’s total water reserves.

In the courtyard outside the museum, there’s a mature eucalyptus tree big enough for three or four people to join hands around it. The Salazar regime planted thousands of acres of them as fast-growing wood for pallets and paper-mills in the mid-20th century. They joined the maritime pines planted to provide timber and pitch for shipbuilding during the era of colonialist expansionism which so enriched pre-earthquake Lisbon. On a long, snaking coach journey I took through the centre of the country last month, the hillsides were punctuated by the blackened trunks of both species, upright and felled. At least 100 people died in last year’s forest fires, including 47 who were trapped in their cars on the eucalyptus-lined N-236 motorway. The prime minister, Antonio Costa, called it ‘a level of human tragedy that we have never seen before’ and announced three days of national mourning.

According to one theory, the fires were started by lightning; a couple of landowners I talked to described arsonist gangs threatening adjacent landowners to accept cut-down rates for felling their trees. As with the unprecedented wildfires in California last year, some of the blame fell on the eucalyptus itself: its bark falls to make kindling on the forest floor, the oily sap burns explosively, and their rapid growth drains water from the land. All this takes place against the backdrop of a drought which, according to the latest data from the Portuguese Institute for Sea and Atmosphere, is ‘severe’ or ‘extreme’ in 84 per cent of the country. A recent meta-analysis ‘assessing the threat of future megadrought in Iberia’ found that ‘all models project an intensification of drought conditions … some only project small increases, while most project extreme multi‐year droughts by the end of the century.’