The New World

Published on 30 January 2008
Potosi, in Bolivia, mines as far as the eye can see...

Pre-Columbian civilisations knew how to develop their hydraulic structures for irrigation and drinking water supply. The dam in Purron, for example, reached 18 metres in height and a capacity of 5.1 million cubic metres after being raised a number of times. It saw service throughout 18 centuries but was finally submerged and destroyed.

From the Incas of Peru to the Mexican Aztecs, all the great Amerindian civilisations were able to invent solutions that were extremely skilful for utilisation of water. It was in actual fact an inescapable condition for survival in an often arid environment.

With them, the Spanish brought the mill wheel, and the idea that water could also meet power utilisation needs. This was especially the case at Potosi (Bolivia), which, after the discovery of silver mines, became one of the most populated cities in the world with 100,000 inhabitants.

For mineral treatment, about thirty reservoirs where built, from 1573 to 1621, at between 4,200 and 4,800 metres in altitude. They supplied 135 hydromechanical plants representing a total power of the order of 600 horsepower, a massive amount for the time.

In 1621, rupture of one of these reservoirs caused the deaths of 4,000 people, which was one of the greatest disasters in the history of dams.