Water and Urban Power in 20th-Century Latin America

AHA Session 202
Conference on Latin American History 42
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Columbia 12 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Mikael Wolfe, Stanford University
Mark Healey, University of Connecticut at Storrs

Session Abstract

This panel examines the relationship of Latin American cities to their urban waterscapes over the twentieth century. Water and its corresponding infrastructure have long been critical elements in the functioning of cities, and control of urban water resources has historically had political and social implications. The multiple changes that Latin American cities underwent in the latter half of the nineteenth century transformed the relationship of urban areas in the region to their hydrological resources. Population growth, incipient industrialization, and paradigm shifts in sanitation theory transformed the way that cities supplied urban water to their citizens and disposed of wastewater. Changes in flows of water affected the metabolism of cities, as volumes of water flowing in and out of the cities increased and were put to new uses by urban residents. At the same time, infrastructure built in the nineteenth century to control flows of water struggled to meet the unforeseen needs of cities by the end of the twentieth century. Latin American cities, however, additionally faced the challenge of persistent urban inequality, with working class neighborhoods and informal settlements struggling for access not just to shelter and urban services but also for access to clean drinking water and adequate waste management. Public policies sought to address issues of quality as well as quantity, often with mixed results for poorer urban residents.

This panel presents several case studies from Latin America, recognizing the comparative challenges of expanding Latin American cities in the twentieth century while emphasizing the local factors that shaped the development of water infrastructure in each urban context. In particular, the presentations seek to emphasize the relationship of each city's waterscape to social and political issues, and how key points in the development of a particularly city’s water infrastructure shaped its subsequent course. Hillar Schwertner’s paper looks at competing priorities for water use along the arid U.S.-Mexican border between the cities of Tijuana and San Diego, demonstrating the interrelated nature of these two cities modern waterscapes. Sarah Hines, in her paper on water conflcits in the midsts of the Bolivian Revolution, shows the struggle between urban and rural interests throughout mid-century Bolivia--with redistribution of water rights to rural communities supplanting the needs of cities like Cochabamba. Douglas McRae presents on efforts in São Paulo to harness hydrological resources to supply the growing metropolis with adequate water. Decisions made to balance the needs of sanitation, hydroelectric and waste disposal had profound impacts on the city’s waterscape and urban environment. Finally, Stefania Gallini focuses further on the significance of water, wastewater, and urban rivers in a paper on the Bogotá River over the past century. Bogotá’s urban waterway suffered the fate of many urban rivers, yet its transformation and degradation reflected an alternate vision of Bogotá’s own claim to modernity within Colombia.

By emphasizing similarities while remaining attentive to local historical particularities, these papers speak to shared urban challenges in the face of water scarcity, aging infrastructure, global climate change, and the privatization of water supply and management.

See more of: AHA Sessions