When a Drought Uncovered Ghost
Towns & a Scary American Future
At face value, these ruins hold a certain charm. Cities flooded for progress, they took to the depths a vanishing world of temples and playgrounds. Now they fire up the imagination about lives that laid dormant for so long.
But as they reemerge, a frightful vision of decay awakens, one that a climate gone awry may turn into routine. In Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S., what once stood impervious is now shadows on a beaten land.
Mankind has been using the age-old mechanical power of falling water for thousands of years. But the technological explosion of the Industrial Revolution made it possible to be harnessed in large scale, and the 20th century saw an acceleration of this process.
Soon, these machines were transforming even the most inhospitable areas into arable lands, and the age of massive, miles-wide crops was born. It was far from such a neat progression, but water turbines became as inexorable as the force of nature they were designed to harness.
With power, however, came great irresponsibility. Soon, they were large enough to divert the ancient course of rivers, and favor some land properties over others, richer states rather than needier ones (we’re looking at you, California).
THE GATES OF BLACK CANYON
The Hoover Dam, built to tame the Colorado River in 1935, is seen as one of the 20th century’s greatest architectural marvels, and still provides water and electricity to two million acres in three states. It also killed the town of St. Thomas, and drove some 500 souls away.
Drought conditions, which have worsen since 2002, have now rescued those ruins from the bottom of Lake Mead, and exposed a haunting landscape of half demolished buildings and silence. They’ve also (more)
* The Third Rock
* Going Under
made accessible for the first time the site of a sunken B-29 bomber.
ONCE THERE WAS A TOWN HERE
Another dam submerged Igaratá in 1969, a small town near São Paulo, that some still remember with mixed feelings. As Brazil experienced a boom of dam construction, many a town like this was lost forever. Again, it took a severe drought to bring back up from the past.
The spectral beauty of seeing dilapidated houses and chapels in the middle of a lake has much of its allure driven by the impossibility of its vision; a place like that has no present or future, and the memories it holds are disappearing along with its former residents.
SALTY REMEMBRANCES OF THE 1980S
A weekend resort. A medicinal bath destination. A trip back in time for Argentine city dwellers. Villa Epecuén was all that, plus the beauty of its salt water lake. What it was not to be was a place with a future, as it slowly was taken over by the surrounding waters.
Thus, after thriving for half a century, the village was swallowed whole by the lake 30 years ago, and what now has reappeared is a different animal. The salt’s corrosiveness took a toll on buildings and trees, and the landscape now could belong to another planet.
FOUR CENTURIES UNDER WATER
The Temple of Quechula, built in Chiapas in 1564, was already long abandoned when Mexico built the Nezahualcóyotl reservoir in the 1960s. But the sight of its age-worn stone arches rising amid the receding waters is a vision of transfixing beauty.
It speaks of the country’s colonial past, and the Discovery Era, Catholic wars and Spanish conquests around the world. Now it may also reveal details of the wretched 1773-76 plague which devastated the area, a fate not even its patron saint San Tiago could prevent.
DIARY OF A FORETOLD TRAGEDY
In 2015, when world leaders gathered in Paris to discuss climate change, what’d been done about it up to then was very little, and what came after hasn’t been much either. For disappearing islands in the Pacific, however, it was all simply downright too late.
As it may be to places where drought is already so severe to start driving a massive migration and dispossession. These four towns are but a memento of the damage it can inflict on us if temperatures continue to rise as they’ve been in the past decade.
2015 was the hottest that any previous years, but alarmingly, it was actually cooler than these past two years. And if not in 2019, then pretty soon after that, there may be no way to turn back the rise. Even it if hits the rich too, it will tragically strangle the poor.
Regardless of uneven material progress, or military might, the drought, for one, is an equalizer of sorts: all three Americas are being affected. Either we do something about it, and fast, or we’ll be not just witnessing the past reemerge, but also head straight back to it.
(*) Originally published on Dec. 3, 2015.