Water Supply and Wastewater Management in Paris, 1850-1930: The Generalisation of the “Belgrand System”

Urban Water in Europe and North America: Origins and Developments
By Konstantinos Chatzis


The French Revolution did not bring to a close the Ancien Régime as far as the water supply and sewerage systems serving Paris were concerned. As late as in the 1830s, Parisians continued to be provided with small quantities of water of questionable quality through private wells and a dearth of public fountains, while the then existing network of storm drains proved repeatedly ineffective. Domestic liquid and solid waste was still being gathered in backyard cesspools, which were occasionally emptied and whose contents were transformed into fertilizer by specialized firms. A series of large projects undertaken under the aegis of the Prefect Haussmann over the period 1855-1870 thoroughly reshaped the water landscape of the city. However, a number of important problems remained unresolved. For instance, in 1874, half of the buildings of the French capital were still not connected to the water supply network of the city. If the storm drain system had undergone significant improvements, domestic waste was still treated much the same way as it was in the past. Indeed, legislation compelling landlords to connect their buildings to the sewers of the city came into effect only in 1894. Epidemics of cholera and typhoid fever represented a persistent scourge for the city up to the end of 19th century. Connecting the entire population of Paris to a modern water supply network proved to be a difficult endeavor for the municipal government, and a long and conflict-ridden process that was completed only in the 1910s, while “universalization” of the sewerage system took two further decades to become reality.This article mainly concerns the period stretching from 1850 to 1930, by which time almost all of Paris inhabitants progressively had been connected to the water supply and sewerage networks of the city. Focusing on the various actors – engineers and public authorities, landlords and companies treating domestic waste, hygienists, etc. – involved in the two networks, it aims to account for the main courses of action undertaken by these actors as well as the mechanisms through which Parisians were eventually provided with universal access to water supply and wastewater systems.
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