Epecuén | A Disastrous Story Of Economic Progress vs Nature

 

Photographer Adrián Markis is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography.  From the project ‘Epecuén’.  To see Adrián’s body of work, click on any image.

 

 

Epecuén Lake Village is located 550 kilometers southwest of Buenos Aires.

Epecuén’s famous lake belongs to the endorheic basin of the chained West Lakes system. These lakes are presumed to have been formed by the impact of the meteorite “Oblongos”. The system extends approximately 30 kilometers and is surrounded by a landscape of cultivated fields.

Epecuén is the sixth and last lake of the system, and has no outlet on the sea. It has always functioned as an “evaporating lake”, that means that the water that naturally entered into its shallow bed, basically from rain water and some streams, was evaporated by the action of the sun. Its minerals, salts and silt were deposited in its depths and after thousands of years helped to form the hypersaline qualities of the lagoon.

The first chemical analysis of water was undertaken in 1886, ten years after the founding of the town. It was then when it was confirmed that the salinity of the lake was above that of the sea at a rate of 10-1, ie, it has 340 g / l and the sea has 32 g / l. Its chlorides and sulphates are so high that, by means of physicochemical processes, they produce excellent results in rheumatic diseases, skin problems, anemia, diabetes, obesity, inflammation and scarring.

Epecuén’s waters are ranked first among all the mineral waters of the world. Its chemical composition is almost identical to the well known waters of Salies from Bearn and Biscours Biarritz (low Pyrenees).

 

 

 

During the early twentieth century, the lake began to be very famous for the curative properties of its waters. Sick people needed Epecuén, but there was a lack of infrastructure to host them; there was nothing else but water and salt. The government, following people’s complaints, began advertising campaigns, offering land on the lake in order to develop health tourism and medical treatments. Some pioneers and visionaries encouraged by the discovery, decided to invest fortunes in Epecuen, where they could forecast a prosperous future.

The growth became frenzied in few years. A major railway station with connections from three railway lines from all over the country was built. Major energy advances were made with the construction of a major power plant that gave light to the entire region. Mining industries that extracted the sulphate and sodium chloride to be used mainly in medicine were developed. Moreover, imposing upscale hotels were built to provide comfort and luxury to the wealthy families of Buenos Aires. Large spa resorts sprung up aiming to provide services to protect from the sun and offer showers to the tourists so they could wash off the salt attached to their bodies.  Furthermore, a hydrothermal complex, bars, cafeterias, large private residences, a school, church and all the amenities of a small town were developed. Little by little the place turned into a great tourist town.

There was only one problem and this was precisely Epecuén’s lake itself. Its water level depended mainly on rainwater and this was not constant in the area. Historically, the lake had poor flow of water and was very shallow.

 

 

 

Tourism with a shallow lagoon was impossible. If its salt mass was not diluted, a crust of 20cm was formed making bathing impossible. People walked across the lagoon from end to end in search of water, trenches and pits were made everywhere. However, between 1914 and 1919, it rained more than double the average of that area which was just under 600mm. For this reason, in 1921 it was possible to inaugurate Epecuen’s first spa and thus begin a new era of hopes and dreams.

In the 30s, the lagoon functioning as it had for thousands of years, it would start shrinking and returning to its normal size. But this defrauded those visionaries who had invested in Epecuen. From that moment onwards, increasingly strong complaints were voiced towards the public works officials. Businessmen needed a hydric solution to the water problem, if not all the investments would fail. This uncertain situation lasted 50 years and was clearly a major impediment to development. Everything worked in the years when it rained because thousands of tourists came to the resort. When the lagoon was dry, the season was a failure.

There were periods of rain and drought, decided only by nature. But in the early 70s, the investors complains were heard and Ameghino canal was built. It was a major work of more than 92 kilometres in length, 30 meters wide and 2.5 meters deep. Water was channeled from several streams from mountains in higher areas diverting the flow into the basin of the water chains and not towards the sea as was its natural destiny.
The lagoon started to grow again and along with it tourism and investments. In parallel the lagoon began to lose its healing properties due to the addition of freshwater and increasingly diluted salts. Nevertheless, no one seemed to worry much about it, except the industries that extracted the sulphate which rapidly went bankrupt. Epecuén, with sufficient water, achieved the position of the second most important tourist city in Argentina.

 

 

 

The problem of the rains had finished giving rise to another problem; water began to enter the lake without hydraulic control works to correctly administer the flow to the basin. There was neither foresight nor maintenance, they only brought with no control and no exit. The water entered a closed circuit, it could only be removed by evaporation or absorption though the soil. The growth of the lagoon was immense in just a few years. Thus, it became necessary to protect the city by building a major embankment wall 4 meters high which walled the city, protecting it from its own waters.

Some precarious pumping systems and public works were done but these just added more bags of earth and stones to the embankment. This was successful for a few years until November 10, 1985, when a big southeastern storm was unleashed across the region, the precarious embankment broke under the force of the wind allowing the water to submerge the city.

In just 48 hours after the breach in the embankment, more than 30% of Lake Epecuén´s village was flooded. Water level was already higher than 1.40 meters, causing a forced evacuation of more than 1,000 inhabitants by the army, but many people did not want to leave; lives were at stake.

The city was completely flooded after a week; there were no fatalities.
People were in ruins, they lost their jobs, their homes, their roots. Their history was all under water. After ten years of trials against the state, the government poorly compensated them. However most of Epecuen´s inhabitants never recovered what they lost and had to start their lives again.

Government built some houses to host the homeless but they no longer had jobs and their situation continued to deteriorate. Many people migrated to Buenos Aires and chose never to return.

 

 

Within a few years it went from a frightening lack of water to an excess, which the authorities in charge were unable to handle. Epecuén disappeared because of the inefficiency and ambition of man. The disaster could have prevented, everyone knew it and that is the worst kind of remorse that the former inhabitants of the town are condemned to live with.

Lake Epecuén village reached 5,000 declared hotel beds. By the year 1985 there were around 250 establishments dedicated exclusively to tourism, in their best times, that is in the 70’s this added up to some 25,000 people during the summer season.
The economic losses were enormous, 544 homes, 112 lodgings, 10 restaurants, 16 hotels, 50 shops, 4 discos, a hydrothermal center, Epecuén´s Gauchos sports club,  the 1,400 meters long race track, the cemetery, municipal slaughterhouse, 46 paved streets, the 600 m2 bus station, the camping ground with 80 grills, and a resort with a pool of 3,000,000 liters and 1,600 m2.

Epecuén  was submerged under 10 meters of water in the 90’s. Now the waters have practically left the city naked, due to a drought and the dynamiting of the famous Ameghino canal.
There is still no government plan to rebuild the city. Actually is like a giant museum, kind of Argentina´s Atlantis, which, paradoxically, few Argentines  know of or remember. Media in conjunction with the authorities preferred to remain silent and hide this tragedy; silence is cheaper than truth.

To date the vast majority of the former inhabitants of Epecuén cannot return to the place and many no longer want to remember it. Epecuén has been a terrible and traumatic experience. The cemetery problem still remains, as most of the bodies could not be transferred to the new cemetery and continue to be submerged.

Humans sooner or later pay for their pride of wanting to sabotage nature. It is nature who put us on this earth and it is only her who can throw us out.
The objective of my photographic work is to ask whether economic progress must be superior to nature, if we think what we are doing has no consequence, sooner or later we will pay for the destruction of life generated by our consumerism. Perhaps Epecuén is a real warning from the planet we leave in and the planet that we respect so poorly.

All images and text  © Adrián Markis

 

 

See also:

AGONY OF LOVE

By Adrián Markis

 

 

 

 

Edge of Humanity Magazine is an independent nondiscriminatory platform that has no religious, political, financial, or social affiliations.

We are committed to publishing the human condition, the raw diverse global entanglement, with total impartiality.

 

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