Farewell, Seven Falls

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Sete Quedas Waterfall flooded by Itaipu reservoir


25 years ago, in October 1982, the planet´s greatest waterfall was drowned, a victim of the filling of Itaipu Reservoir (Brazil/Paraguay). The so-called "Seven Falls of Guaíra", or "Sete Quedas", in reality a series of 18 waterfalls, were at 114 meters in height not the world´s tallest falls, but they were easily the most powerful in volume, with more than double the flow of Niagara Falls and 12 times the flow over Victoria Falls.

The Seven Falls were formed where the Paraná River, after crossing the red sandstone Mbaracayú Mountains, was forced through canyon walls and narrowed abruptly from a width of 1,250 feet to 200 feet.The Encyclopedia Britanica said "the water bubbles in a deafening crescendo which can be heard 20 miles away". Or, as another source of essential information put it, "at 1,750,000 cubic ft./sec., it would fill the Capital dome in Washington, D.C. in 3/5 of a second".

The drowning of the Falls was foretold by another tragedy. In January, 1982, only a few months before the falls were slated to disappear, a bridge over the Paraná River gorge collapsed, sending 80 people to their death. The cause – a flood of tourists wishing to say good-bye to the falls, and inadequate maintenance of the bridges, given their imminent demise.

The Guaíra Falls National Park was liquidated by decree of the Brazilian military government, as was its Paraguayan counterpart. The Brazilian government later dynamited the rock face of the submerged falls to eliminate obstacles to navigation, thus destroying any hope that they could be restored to life in the future.

José Costa Cavalcanti, director-general of the bi-national company building Itaipu had said "We´re not destroying Seven Falls. We´re just going to transfer it to Itaipu Dam, whose spillway will be a substitute for its beauty". And, with 647,000 visitors last year, Itaipu Dam is indeed a popular tourist attraction. But 1.08 million people visited the nearby Iguassu Falls despite the fact that for several months upstream dams reduced it to a trickle, meaning that at least for tourists, nature still outscores technology.

Do these "fluvial monuments" have a right to exist, to be admired and revered? Or are they doomed to be targets for the world´s dam builders, to be blasted away like the rocks of the Seven Falls for "progress"?

Carlos Drummond de Andrade, the aging Brazilian poet penned a requiem to the Seven Falls: "…seven ghosts murdered by the hand of man, owner of the planet…Seven falls passed us by, and we didn´t know, ah, we didn´t know how to love them, and all seven were killed, and all seven disappeared into thin air, seven ghosts, seven crimes of the living taking a life never again to be reborn".