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Spain's Drowned City

By Danny Weller


With sea levels rising every day due to global warming, countries like Tuvalu, a pacific island barely above sea level, are at risk of being reclaimed by the sea. Even Venice's famous and historic City is under threat, with rising sea levels causing water to spill into its streets from its many waterways.


Yet before the effects of climate change were so keenly felt, another European city was submerged beneath the waters of nature’s wrath.


Last October marked the 65th anniversary of “La Riada de Valencia”, the flooding of the River Turia in 1957, which left 81 people dead and three-quarters of Valencia’s streets underwater. Valencia suffered an eternal paradox: the river was the City’s source of life and economic prosperity and a constant threat of flooding. Over two thousand years ago, in the year 138 B.C., Valencia was founded by Roman Consul Junius Callaicus on a small river island five kilometres from the shores of the Mediterranean. 


In the autumn of 1957, what had once been a trickling brook winding through mudflats, broke its banks after a weekend of torrential rain, sweeping through Valencia’s streets and leaving devastation in its wake. Residents were forced to climb buildings, lampposts and statues to escape the clutching waters.


The rains began on Saturday, the 12th of October, the National day of Spain, and were influential in the interior, around Liria, where they received around 215 litres/m2 per hour. However, in Valencia, they only received three litres per m2 per hour, so no one was ringing any alarm bells. Meanwhile, inland areas received almost 500 litres/m2 per hour for thirty hours straight. 


This vast quantity of water charged down towards the sea, taking the water from its tributaries, flooding roads and bridges and blocking channels meant to aid drainage.

On Sunday the 13th, those alarm bells began to sound. In communication with the Civil Governor, the Mayor of Valencia put the State’s security and emergency services on a high alert. Ironically, it had just stopped raining over the City of Valencia: the calm before the storm.

In the early hours of Monday morning, the waters of the Turia began to rise. At 3 am, the first wave struck, causing the initial flooding, with the river clocking speeds of 2700/m3 

 per second. This first wave only affected those residents who lived along the banks 

 of the river and the areas near the sea.


In deathly silence, the swollen river spread across the river bed, sliding its way up the containment walls and the barriers of beautiful stone bridges like the Puente de Trinidad. At the same time, it had already washed away the City’s wooden bridges. Soon the river would return to its place on Valencia’s streets. 


Then the rains returned with torrential force, causing the river to swell until around midday, when the second wave struck, even more, powerful than the first. The Turia was flowing 

 at 3,700 m3 per second. Not even the Nile flows that fast. With this surge of water, the river returned to its natural course, right through the city centre, which due to the City’s expansion and the use of the Turia for agricultural irrigation, had run dry since the 11th century. 

Yet now, the river returned home with a vengeance. 


For years, the City’s sewers had emptied sewage onto the river bed, raising it higher, pumping fouled river water straight back into Valencia’s streets. Maintenance hole covers shot into the air, followed by an explosion of muddy water as the water returned the City one street at a time. In some areas, the water level reached up to five metres, forcing residents to scramble for higher ground desperately. 


Residents were utterly cut off from each other and the rest of Spain, and despite the abundance of water flowing around them, mocking them, they had no access to drinking water or electricity. The waters of the Turia officially claimed the lives of 81 Valencians (the actual number is thought to be closer to 400), left an uncountable number injured, and caused economic losses of thousands of millions of pesetas in homes and livelihoods.


In a curious twist of fate, the flood waters left the old Roman part of the City completely untouched. For a brief period, Callaicus’s island fortress city of “Valentia Edetanorum” seemed to re-emerge from the depths of history.


In the following days, the army was brought in to help deal with the disaster, with citizens being airlifted to safety from the top of buildings and patches of dry land by helicopter. 

 Much of the City, beach and port were covered in a thick layer of mud which took the army and the citizens of Valencia until the end of November to remove. Spain’s fascist dictator Francisco Franco arrived in Valencia on the 24th of October, when most of the work had already been done, to ‘survey the situation ‘and gain some political points by showing his face in the disaster zone.


To protect the City from future flooding, the city council diverted the course of the river around the south of the City, leaving the section of the river running through the city centre to run dry. This allowed Valencia’s development. Initially, to alleviate traffic in the City, the local government put forward plans for a highway system in the heart of the City. However, this met fierce resistance from Valencia’s citizens, who protested the highway proposal with the cry, “The bed of Turia is ours, and we want green!”


By 1980, the City approved legislation to turn the riverbed into a park. The Turia River Park is five miles long and is the longest park in Europe, and has transformed the face of Valencia, boasting bike paths, event spaces, playing fields, fountains, lakes and impressive structures such as Santiago Calatrava’s biomorphic City of Arts and Sciences. Thus out of tragedy came a new artery in the lifeblood of Valencia.


Yet tragedy has not been averted for good. With rising sea levels and little to no attention paid to climate change by world leaders, the tale of “La Riada” may become increasingly common in the coming years.


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