Anyone who has ever visited the Portuguese Island Madeira knows that one of the best-known features of the island is the network of levadas. But there aren’t many sites that explain what these levadas are for, how and when they were built, how their maintenance is done and by whom, and what their significance is today, apart from providing us with nice footpaths. Time for me to do some research and to take a walk to take some photos. Here are my findings.
In the last quarter of the fifteenth century, when agriculture became more important for the settlers, the need for water became more urgent. As Madeira is situated in the area where the north-east tradewinds tentatively start, the prevailing wind is indeed northeasterly. The moist ocean air is pushed over the high mountains of the island and has to lose some of its water before it can stream up and over the island’s higher areas. Therefore, the north side of the island catches more rain than the south, where the first inhabitants settled, so the water needed to be transported from the north side to the south. Hence the name ‘Levada’, which is derived from the Portuguese verb ‘levar’ which means ‘to bring’. The Levadas bring water to where it is most needed.
Slaves and convicts
The first levadas were limited in length, roughly hewn into the relatively soft volcanic rock, and where they met an area of harder basalt rock, they simply made wooden gutters to go around these difficult areas. Gradually, the network of the first simple levadas evolved, techniques became more sophisticated and more manpower was needed. So, often slaves or convicts were used to cutting out the levadas in the sides of the Mountains. It should be noted that it was under Spanish occupation that slaves were first put to work on these levadas. When Spain colonized the Canary Islands, they met the original inhabitants, the Guanches, and, in line with the Spanish tradition they were mostly killed as they did later on in the Americas, simply because they were living in a place the Spaniards wanted for themselves. The ones that weren’t killed were used as slaves, after, of course, being forced to convert to the ever benign Roman Catholicism. Many of these slaves were forced to work on the Madeira levadas. But after the Spanish were kicked out of Portugal it is fair to say that the Portuguese were not much less harsh to the men working on the levadas and, sadly, many lost their lives in the early days of the network being built. It was hard, and often dangerous work as you can imagine looking at the images below.
Lining the levadas
Gradually, the need for water increased, as in Madeira the cultivation of sugar cane became very important. The first riches of Madeira were sugar, the White Gold of Madeira, and, of course, Rhum, which the Madeirans call Aguardente or Fiery Water. As the levada network grew, better techniques were used to limit the loss of water as much as possible. The levadas needed some lining, as the volcanic rock is rather porous, causing water leaking away through the sides and bottom. So they started to use small cobbles to line the levadas to more or less waterproof them, but in the more modern times gradually cyclopic concrete, which really is cement with large stones embedded in it, became the norm.
sizes and gradients
The size of the main levadas is usually 60-100 centimetres wide and they may be up to 1,20 m deep. The width is not only limited because there was little room on the side of the Mountains, but the narrow size of the levadas also helped to limit the water loss by evaporation. Most levadas have in inclination varying from 1:100 to 1:1000, to get the maximum transport distance out of a levada. We love that, of course, as we can walk along the levadas and get the feeling of walking on a level path. Only the much smaller local levadas that branch perpendicularly from the main levadas to feed reservoirs or irrigate the land, and , may be a lot steeper. That goes for the smaller levadas following streets and roads as well. The latter may be used to irrigate small local patches of land, but they also lead rainwater away from the roads, which otherwise would turn into torrents in the sometimes heavy showers. Also, levadas meant to feed the water mills in the island may have steeper gradients, as the water just needs to get to the mill. It is a pity that the watermills are in disuse now, and in spite of some vague plans about the watermill in Lombada da Ponta do Sol, which should be put back in working order for tourism, most are just a silent monument nowadays. Fortunately, I found a video on Youtube showing the São Jorge watermill that seems to be in working order still. Definitely worth a visit.
Who feeds the levadas?
So who is pouring water into the levadas at the top end, you may wonder. In the early days, the levada gave whatever the weather gods decided to give. In times of abundant rain, which really may occur every winter, large lakes form in Paúl da Serra, which means ‘plains of the mountains’. The water slowly seeps into the ground and feeds many wells in the mountains, that feed the levadas leading slowly down to the lower agricultural areas of the island. By the end of summer, usually, the water supply slowed down and shortages occurred in the fields. Nowadays, there are large reservoirs, built with the help of Norwegian engineers, hold the water until it is needed. Real water shortages for irrigation is now a thing of the past.
If you wonder why mountain streams are always led over the levadas, or even the other way around, it is to avoid the levadas getting an overload of water. After the floods of February 2010, which killed 50 people and destroyed many houses, it was found that many levadas had been damaged due to the uncontrolled excess of water that poured into them. So that is the reason why we see small aqueducts, looking like waterfalls, built over the levada or, on the contrary, waterfalls with the levada built behind it.
All, of course, adding to the stunning beauty of many a levada walk. The system is not foolproof though, as we found when walking a levada along the Lombo do Mouro. We were well watered by many a waterfall and those with the right gear had lots of fun. Like Tobi who was the only one who stayed dry.
Levadas, their use through the centuries
Thanks to the availability of water and the good climate, Madeira was the world’s largest producer of sugar by the end of the 15th century. Water was brought to the places that needed it most. The south side of the island is not quite as steep as the North, so agriculture was easier there. Gradually, however, other areas took over, like Brazil and Cuba and other Carribean islands. In the Napoleonic era, when France, and therefore a large part of Continental Europe was cut off from the sugar supply in the West Indies that were controlled by the English, production of sugar from sugar beets was developed and gradually, the large scale sugar cane cultivation in Madeira ceased. This way of producing sugar turned out to be easier and cheaper, and sugar cane was no longer of any great economic importance for Madeira. Having lost its largest source of income, Madeira switched to cultivating bananas, that need lots of water as well, and honestly, the Madeira bananas are delicious. Unfortunately, the all-powerful and debatable United Fruit lobby has prevented these delicious bananas, which really put the standardized Chiquitas to shame, from being exported outside Portugal, because they did not meet the shape-norm (how idiotic can you be) but thankfully, the ban has been lifted and we can expect the most delicious bananas in the world to show up in the supermarkets and greengrocers’ shops in the rest of Europe.
But the importance of the levada network went a bit further than just watering sugar cane or bananas. As a side effect, it provided the Madeirans with some sort of running water. At central places near the small settlements, washing places were built, obviously fed by the levadas. Social coherence was enhanced by these places, though one could also call them gossip centres. Though the washing machine has long since taken over, it is not difficult to imagine how news was spread in the early days. The levadeiros took care of the long-distance, the washing women took care of the local spreading.
To top things off, the levadas may also be the cause of amusement. When Noud, my husband, was living in a small rented house overseeing the reconstruction of our house in 2007, he witnessed the neighbours across the street irrigating their potato field. The neighbours had freshly arrived back from Venezuela, where their parents emigrated, but politics have made that country untenable. So without much practice, they set to work. The idea is to stand in the middle of the shallow levada that is meant to water the field. Perpendicular to the levada small ridges have been made where the potatoes have been planted. The purpose is to fill the space between the ridges with water. So you put a large piece of plastic, like a garbage bag, against your shins, let the water bump against it and force it out of the levada to both sides. They didn’t get it right. Instead of watering the land, boots were filled and pants were soaked, but the weather was fine and everyone laughed their (wet) socks off. Shame Noud did not have a camera at the ready.
The importance of the banana culture in Madeira ensures the further conservation and maintenance of the levadas. Also, the government of the Autonomous Region of Madeira (RAM) has submitted the levada network to the UNESCO, explaining its origin and its evolution to the modern-day. For those who want to read more of the history of the unique levada network, the submission is an interesting read. Unsurprisingly though, being a genuine banana republic government, they left out the chapter about the slaves and convicts, and the many lives lost in the construction of the earlier levadas. Be that as may, the Levada network, of which there is no second in the World, is now on the tentative list of UNESCO World heritage. It certainly deserves being on the final list as well, but that is in the future.
Modern-day levada use
Most levadas you come across in Madeira are actually still in use. Agriculture is the most water-consuming activity on the Island. So the levadas must be kept operational, meaning clean of debris and overgrowth, and preferably not too leaky. There is a service in Madeira called ‘Aguas de Rega’, literally irrigation waters, which employs men (and women) called Levadeiros (or Levadeiras), each looking after all the levadas in a designated area. They also distribute the water according to the subscription people have. You can subscribe to levada water and the amount of money you pay yearly is in proportion with the amount of water that you get (usually measured in time the local levada runs to your land or reservoir). The Levadeiros and Levadeiras have narrow footpaths at their disposal, so they can walk the entire length of the levada they have to look after. For us, these paths are the ultimate way to discover all the beautiful nooks and crannies that Madeira has to offer us.
Close to the main distribution stations of water – still all quite low-tech – you can often find small but usually very well kept houses. Before traffic was motorized, the Levadeiros could spend the night there. The levadeiro-houses often had two small bedrooms and a larger room where they kept their tools and supplies.
One of the encounters we had with a levadeiro in the Calheta area was memorable. We were walking the levada with a group of friends, and, finished for the day, a levadeiro walked along with us. I had the nerve of practising my then still beginner’s Portuguese on him. When seeing a mushroom (the first one I saw in Madeira) I asked him if he knew which ones are edible here. I supposed he was knowledgable about nature, being in it all day and every day. His answer shut me up: “the ones in Pingo Doce” (Pingo Doce is one of the most important supermarket chains in Portugal). Anyway, as there was a very blond woman in the group who had lived here for many years, his attention was soon entirely focused on her. When we arrived at the Levada house near the distribution station, he did offer us some of his homemade wine. Little did I know at the time. It was just as well the wine tastes of sulphur mostly because if it hadn’t, I am sure it would have tasted of the man’s feet – probably unwashed. A word of caution: avoid the ‘vinho regional’, the wine of the region, at all cost. There is a reason they use it to make the fortified ‘Vinho da Madeira’, Madeira wine. The ordinary wine ‘as-is’ is simply too foul.
When I was doing a walk in my area to take some more photos for this article, I met our local Levadeira Maria. A nice lady, who usually carries a dangerous sickle, called the ‘foice’ in Portuguese, to clear away vegetation in excess near the levada. She keeps the distribution station in a lovely state, with a nice little strip of garden. Whenever I see her I point at the dangerous knife she carries and she invariably answers it is to fend off nasty men. Adding that she never meets one, more’s the pity. Today, however, she is at her Sunday best. She does not carry her dangerous knife today. She wields her iPhone instead.
The distribution gates for the water are very low-tech, the most modern version usually consisting of a steel gate that can be slid in or out its slots in the side of the levada, thus opening or closing a gap. Only the larger ones may have a simple worm gear to ease the lifting and lowering. But the real low tech gates consist of stones and rags or even plastic bags, also effectively closing off an exit. These simple ones are mostly found near the ends of the local levadas.
Whenever the Levadeiro sees any defects in the structure, more serious maintenance is called for. With the sun being very powerful, the concrete levadas were prone to cracking caused by expansion and shrink as the sun came and went. The later day repairs include rubber compound expansion seams between sections of maybe 10 meters of levada.
Seeing a levada undergoing structural improvement or reconstruction, we have been amazed at the inventions the Madeirans made. One would think that repairing or reconstructing a levada perched on a steep mountain, with only a narrow footpath to get there, really means a lot of manual work with no machines available to help. One day, walking along the Levada do Norte near Boa Morte in the council of Ribeira Brava, we were surprised at the ingenuity with which small inventions did mechanize a part of the levada’s reconstruction. In this case, the walls of the levada needed to be raised. First, the section of a levada needs to be drained. This is quite simple, a temporary wooden dam is built on one or both ends of the section that needs work. Then, one or more gates are opened and the section drains. Then, a small generator is brought to the site, and a large drill is used to drill holes in the sides. Using a rubber compound, steel pins are put into the holes and then bent, to created reinforcement for the concrete to be put un the top of the walls. Then, planks are clamped to the sides and concrete is poured in. In principle, covering the old floor and sides is done much the same way, but it was getting the materials on site that surprised us most. They use a small diesel engine like a miniature locomotive and behind it, small trailers with wheels on the bottom and on the sides to not damage the levada sides. This is used to bring large buckets of liquid concrete or other materials to the construction site. Our amusement in seeing the workers on top of their little train was not lost on them. Toys for da boys.
So, this unique system of water transport has caused a new semi-low tech industry to pop up. Things that we never would have thought of, but often wondered about, have been in place on the Madeira levadas for quite a while. As we have seen before, one more proof that Madeirans are masters in using whatever resources available to their best advantage.
I tried to cover most of what levadas and their construction are about in this article. If I have not written about Hydro-electric powerplants that are also a part of the modern levada water system, it is because these are usually fed by large pipelines. Maybe more about this in a future article about Madeira’s energy generation.
I have tried to give a general impression of the stories behind the levadas that many of us just take for granted. I don’t pretend to be complete here but if this story is cause for any questions, please leave them here below and I will try and answer them as best I can. Also, please remember I did my research via the internet and by asking Madeirans who have lived here all their lives. Still, people may have it wrong, and the sources I used on the internet cannot always be checked. So, if you have read anything that you think incorrect, please tell me so. If anything, I hope this article contributes to the fun of walking the levadas of Madeira.