In an article that has defined the historiography on the history of the provision of drinking water in early modern Paris, Daniel Roche has concluded that the early modern period was “le temps de l’eau rare” (the period in which “water was scarce”). To draw his conclusion, Roche did not embark on a serious archival research, but instead relied on the Ponts-et-Chaussées engineer Pierre-Simon Girard’s writings published in the earlier years of the nineteenth century. In his writings, Girard echoed the discourses of engineers and scientists of the 1750s principally. The idea of scarcity (pénurieu or manque) was a rhetoric they often employed as a beacon to urge the Municipal Board and the Crown to grant them the patent letters they needed to transform the nature and structure of water supply in Paris. In these accounts, scarcity was not in itself an event occurring at a specific time, but the perpetual condition of the waterless French capital. As such water scarcities remain obscure historical events.
How was water scarcity observed? What were the triggers and causes? How did the population cope with it? These are the questions this talk answers by focusing on the periods of scarcity that unfold between 1700 and 1730. These shortages, I argue, were due to different phenomena rooted not only in physical or natural phenomenon, but also in socially and politically decisions to respond to the growth of Paris and new demands for water associated with poor management of available resources precipitated this period of severe crisis.