Alqueva Dam 10 years on .jpg

Alqueva Dam 10 years on

By Chris Graeme

[email protected]

IT WAS 10 years ago that one of the most ambitious and controversial engineering and construction schemes ever conceived for Portugal was launched.

The European Commission, under pressure from the Portuguese government, helped to finance the construction of the Alqueva Dam, which is located in the Alentejo region.

However, the dam was highly controversial, with critics claiming there was a high probability that the dam would cause desertification and salinization.

Environmental pressure groups such as Quercus and the Liga para a Protecção da Natureza, the nature protection league argued that it would furthermore destroy one of the most bio-diversified regions of Europe and cause the destruction of thousands of images of irreplaceable ancient rock art or petroglyphs.

Over 400 images of the prehistoric Stone Age art were located within the impact zone of the dam along the Portuguese and Spanish sides of the Guadiana River.

However the government argued, with much justification, that the Alqueva Dam was vital for irrigation of farmland, which has and is still suffering from successive droughts and would help revitalise one of Portugal’s poorest, most abandoned and disadvantaged regions.

The Instituto Portugues de Arqueologia, (IPA), the Portuguese archaeological institute sided with the government and defended the arts submersion on the grounds that it was not of significant importance.

The project in the Guadiana River intended to create a complex infrastructure, which includes the dam, a hydroelectric power production plant, irrigation systems to a large arable land area and the formation of an extensive reservoir, forming a lake where several tourist developments are to be found.

Lack of water

The Alentejo  is the hottest and driest region in Portugal and problems caused by lack of rainfall have been drastic in recent years, particularly in the summer months when temperatures regularly reach 40-45 degrees centigrade in July and August.

Both the hot, dry climate and the lack of infrastructure and investment has caused serious problems for the people of this region, leaving whole villages virtually abandoned to the elderly and disadvantaged.

As far back as the 1950s the Portuguese dictator Salazar ordered feasibility studies on the project, which were finally started after the 1974 Revolution, only to be shelved in 1978.

The potential benefits of the dam were discussed for decades and the complex of the Alqueva Dam were intended to solve many of these problems, as well as creating the largest artificial lake in Europe.

The Portuguese government eventually decided to go ahead with the dam in the 1990s during both the Cavaco Silva and António Guterres governments.

The village of Aldeia da Luz, which fell within the flooding zone had to be completely rebuilt on a new site nearby. On February 8, 2002, the 96-metre-high floodgates of the dam were closed and the reservoir was filled.

Some small examples of the unique Neolithic-Chalcolithic Iberian open-air rock art was saved by slicing off the top layers of rock and removing them. However, the vast majority were submerged.

A Spanish archaeologist discovered the rock engravings in April 2000, and announced the discovery at a course on European prehistoric art held at Tomar Polytechnic.

It wasn’t until 2001, that the Portuguese Liga para a Protecção da Natureza announced publically that there was a large body of rock art in the valley, after receiving an anonymous tip-off (presumably from one of 100 archaeologists working on the site).

The archaeological team, under the guidance of the IPA claimed they had never noticed the rock art, even though impact studies had begun as far back as 1985.

This led to two possibilities: either the archaeologists knew about it, but were silenced or bought off by the government so as not to prevent the construction of the dam, or they didn’t know about it.

However, rock art discoveries were also concealed from the public in 1992, at Coa until a chance discovery by officials from the International Federation of Rock Art Organisation (IFRAO) in late 1994.

This led to the Coa Campaign and the end of the Coa Dam Project at a cost of millions to tax payers.

Similarly construction of another dam project in the Sabor Valley proceeded for several years under conditions of secrecy and with approval of the IPA to hide the fact that there were valuable archaeological finds in the valley.