Sunken Villages Are Emerging From Dried-Up Reservoirs During Europe’s Heatwave

Villages and churches were sunk in the 1960s by Spain’s fascist dictator. Now, the blistering heat has dried out reservoirs and exposed a forgotten past.
spain europe drought reservoir
PHOTO: Manuel Medir/Getty Images

SAU, Spain – When the Santa Romà de Sau church was submerged underwater in a controversial reservoir plan by Spanish dictator, General Franco, people thought they’d never see it again.

In dry years, people would sometimes be able to see the spire of the 11th century church pushing out of the water.

But this summer hasn’t brought a drop of rain to this reservoir 65 miles (100 km) north of Barcelona, and now for only the second time since it was sunk in 1962, the entire church is exposed. 


Spain, like much of Europe, is in the grip of a deadly drought and heatwave, which has seen major rivers and reservoirs across the continent dry up, and created perfect kindling for massive forest fires.

Despite the 35 degrees Celsius (95F) heat, tourists have been drawn to see the church as part of a new attraction sweeping Spain: drought tourism.

The bleak picture at Sau has been repeated across Spain as reservoirs have dried up after two heatwaves, in some cases revealing villages lost for decades, and drawing curious crowds to discover their forgotten past.


The Sau reservoir is at 37 percent capacity. PHOTO: Manuel Medir/Getty Images

They were initially flooded by Franco’s fascist regime as part of a controversial national scheme that created dozens of reservoirs across Spain, which left hundreds of families ousted from their homes in about 500 villages.

The Sau reservoir now provides drinking water to more than three million people in Barcelona and irrigates farms in northern Catalonia, but has seen its reserves drop to just 37 percent after months of drought. 

If there is no significant rainfall soon, Barcelona will have to bring in water restrictions, such as limiting supplies to households. 

Water is being bused into villages in Catalonia after wells have run dry. In the Basque Country, in northwestern Spain, ships are transporting water to dried out towns. 


Santa Romà de Sau seen in June 2022. PHOTO: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

On the sides of the dried-out reservoir at Sau, mangled tree roots, huge boulders and disused car parts are now exposed to the sun. Near the waterline, a stinking mud bakes in the heat. 


“I just wanted to come and see the church again. I remember it as a child as I went to the school in the village,” Montserrat Fon, 73, who was helped by her daughter to walk to the church, told VICE World News.

“I was only a girl then, so I don’t remember much of it. This is a treat for me.”

No one can enter the Santa Romà de Sau church for fear that it might collapse, but it drew crowds of curious visitors travelling to see the church. Police had to block roads because there were too many people making the journey. 

“People must become more conscientious about how we use water from now on,” Francesca Ferrer, 55, a tourist, said.

The reservoir, which has been deprived of any proper rain since January, is normally a popular place for locals to go kayaking or paddleboarding. Now, company bosses fear their watersports businesses may be at risk.

“Very soon we may not be able to open. The water is going down about 30 centimetres a day,” Jacint Dresse, a worker at Kayak Sau said. 

Spain’s water reserves have dipped to 39.1 percent of their normal level – the lowest point since 2009.

Ruben del Campo, weather forecaster with the Spanish state meteorological agency, said: “Spain has been suffering from a scarcity of rain since the end of January. It is the worst drought since a period between 2005 and 2009. 


“We cannot tell how long it will last but it may last until autumn across much of Europe.”

The drought is also ravaging vital crops. This year’s cereal harvest has been 23 percent lower than the average for the past three years, while the wine crop was 20 percent lower than usual.

With dry ground and scorching temperatures, Spain has become a tinderbox. So far this year, 390 wildfires have laid waste to 265,467 hectares of land.  

Ten passengers were hurt this week, three seriously, when they tried to escape from a train that was engulfed in a wildfire sweeping through Valencia in eastern Spain. 

The driver asked passengers to stay on board while he reversed the train, but some panicked and smashed windows to escape. A 15-year-old girl and 58-year-old woman suffered the most serious burns.

Driving around Spain, once green fields have turned yellow and there is no grass for cattle or sheep to eat.

This is a problem being felt across Europe. It is now possible to walk across parts of the River Loire in France, and a cargo ship was stranded on Wednesday on the River Rhine in Germany, blocking nautical traffic as the drought dried up a main trade passage in Europe’s biggest nation.  

Meanwhile, in Spain’s heatwave, even ice has become a precious commodity. A major supermarket chain, Almagro, is limiting ice bags to one per customer while in other stores the freezers are empty. 


Spain’s government has also limited air conditioning to 27 degrees Celsius (81F) in summer and the heating to 19 degrees Celsius (67F) in winter as part of an energy-saving drive. The European Union fears Russia will cut gas supplies in the winter in retaliation for sanctions by bloc countries over the Ukraine war.  

But the measures have met with opposition from tourism chiefs who claim they will put off holidaymakers and damage a sector which brings Spain about 15 percent of its GDP.

Dr Cristina Linares, co-director of climate change, health and urban development at the Carlos III Institute of Health in Madrid, a government body, said “without a doubt” Spain and other parts of Europe would suffer more droughts in the future because of climate change. 

Dr Linares said drought will force people to move house in the future as the most arid areas, particularly in rural areas, become uninhabitable. 

This could cause the spread of disease and economic losses which could impact on mental health, she said. 

“Drought can worsen mental health, increasing the risk of  stress, anxiety, depression and in the worst cases contribute to an increased risk of suicide,” she told Vice World News.

Faced with a future with less rain, Carles Rabadà is trying to change people's attitudes towards water use.  

A drone enthusiast, he is leading a project named after the Catalan word for drought, #LaSequera22, in which people record drone videos to show how 29 reservoirs in Catalonia have slowly dried up.

“We wanted this project to try to make people think about how climate change is ravaging our country,” he told VICE World News

“We hope people will see these videos and realise how precious water should be to us.”