3rd World Congress of Environmental History

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The Billings Reservoir: An Artificial Lake in the Anthropocene (São Paulo, 1925-1988)

Thu, July 25, 2:00 to 3:30pm, Centro de Cultura e Eventos, Sala Goiabeira


The Reservatório Billings is the largest reservoir in the São Paulo Metropolitan Region (RMSP). With a surface area of 127 square kilometers, it was once the largest man-made lake in South America. Created under the direction of a North American engineer by the damming of the Rio Grande (part of the Alto Tietê watershed), Billings’s principal purpose was water provision for the Cubatão hydroelectric plant at the base of the Serra do Mar, making the reservoir a crucial part of the region’s energy matrix. In 1958, São Paulo’s Department of Water and Sewer (DAE) began to utilize a section of Billings for public water supply in the burgeoning ABC region, outside of the capital. Since its creation, however, much of the city’s sewage has drained into Billings, via the canalized and reversed flows of Tietê and Pinheiros rivers. As the city encroached upon the the banks of this manmade lake during the second half of the twentieth century, unplanned settlements and economic activity further polluted the reservoir, compounding the insalubrious conditions of the reservoir.
This paper analyzes the changing significance of Billings and its place in the urban environment of São Paulo. Lauded as a remarkable achievement of modern engineering and a motor for São Paulo’s continued growth when construction began in 1925, by the end of the century Billings became an environmental pariah due to contamination from untreated sewage and industrial runoff. Sanitation engineers and scientists, however, saw potential for Billings as a source of public water supply and as part of a rational solution for sewage management in the RMSP. In this paper, I will consider how the expanding mega-city’s relationship with the lake changed and how the presence of the Billings reservoir shaped possibilities for paulistanos to confront the challenges of urban life in the Anthropocene.