Rain brings life: rain and people on Curacao

This post is also available in: Dutch.

Rain, a scarce resource

Fresh water has always been scarce on Curacao. Not only are there few fresh water wells, the amount of rainfall is generally not something to write home about. The recent wet years notwithstanding, Curacao experienced terribly dry years in recorded history. Many who live on the island longer than six years can probably still remember the dry times, during which everything looked so gray that you could only think the worst: this will never resolve itself, everything is dead!

Dam of Malpais, a wetland area.

Curacao has a semi-arid climate. This means almost desert-like conditions, to which nature has adapted itself. Little rain and lots of wind and sun, interspersed with a rainy season create the ‘seasons’ on the island, and thus the cycle of reproduction and a sort of ‘hibernation’ of many plant species. Not only animals and plants in nature are regularly exposed to this kind of desert-like conditions, humans also have and had difficulties with it. If no processes would have been invented to turn salt water into fresh water and to distribute this water easily through pipes, a lot less people would have been living on ‘dushi Korsou’, simply because fresh water would have been a limiting factor. It must therefore have been a difficult time before the construction of the water plant, especially if we go back to the time of the first inhabitants of the island.

Freshwater wells

The first people on the island were Indians. They most likely crossed the sea in between Venezuela and Curacao in wooden canoes. The first thing they would have gone looking for is fresh water, the basic need of man. Curacao must have looked unwelcome, with the experiences of vast freshwater rivers and reservoirs in Venezuela in mind. The island has a number of natural wells, two of which are located in the nature area of Rooi Rincon, one located at San Pedro and two found in the Christoffel Park. It seems logical that the small number of people would concentrate around these locations. Archaeological research done by foundation NAAM has confirmed this.

Islas inutiles

The arrival of the Spaniards announced the end of the Indian population on the island. The Spaniards were not very enthusiastic about the island, however. No precious metals for the taking, and worse, not even plantations could be established because of the lack of fresh water for irrigation. The name Islas inutiles – worthless Islands – was quickly born.
It is therefore astonishing to realize how often our ‘worthless’ Island has change ‘owner’ in the period after 1499.

Rooi Beru in the Christoffel Park is one of the largest 'rooien' of the island. The planters of this region constructed at least three large dams. These are still part of the historical structures to be found in the park, although not all still function. In times of heavy rain showers, there are rivers and waterfalls in the park.

Planting in the drought

After the conquest of the island by the Dutch, shiploads of hopeful people came from the lower countries towards the Caribbean. The cancellation of the Dutch colony in Brazil also resulted in movement of people that were originally Dutch from there to the Island. The expansion of the population also brought with it that more food was needed. Import took a long time, and the import of fresh vegetables was practically impossible. It was therefore necessary for them to attempt to cultivate the dry barren island, where no rivers flowed. They knew by then, however, that groundwater was available on the island, and that if it finally rained, it did so by the bucketful.

Dams

And then the famous Dutch technical ingenuity came looking around the corner, in order to find a solution to this rather essential problem (although to be honest, we need to realize that the Spaniards ‘stole’ many survival tricks from the Indians. And the Dutch learned  from the Spaniards, logically). They found out that the water of heavy rainfall was actually transported to the sea through some sort of rivers, after all, through what we now call ‘rooien’. But this water was gone just as quickly as it had fallen. To prevent the valuable water to disappear too quickly, and turn useless for agriculture, they decided to slow down the water, in order to optimize the chance for the water to penetrate into the ground. Blockades were therefore erected across the drainage basins, of packed earth reinforced with stone: dams.

A Least grebe (Tachybaptus dominicus), benefitting from the freshwater catchment areas created by man.

It certainly had been a case of trial and error, before they found out that one dam is not enough to slow down the wildly swirling water, and most initial attempts at building dams probably would have failed. A series of dams, at reasonable distances of one another in the same ‘rooi’ had the desired effect, however, causing the water washing over the first dam to be slowed down by a second or even a third dam further downstream. The water held back by such a system of dams got the chance to seep into the ground, in order to keep groundwater levels as high as possible. This is very important if you want to continue irrigating crops, even in the dry season. Behind the dam (downstream) wells could be dug for a water supply that lasted practically all year round. With the construction of dams special places were created on the island, where artificial fresh water lakes formed. That can still be seen behind the dams of, amongst others, Muizenberg and Malpais. What the then-living dam builders probably never suspected, however, is that the same dams they built to perform agriculture in order to survive, are now freshwater nature areas that cause birders to drool. It was not originally intended to be this way, but nature gained a lot by their efforts!

Michelle da Costa Gomez

About Michelle da Costa Gomez

One Response to “Rain brings life: rain and people on Curacao”

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  1. Roman says:

    Just returned from Caracao and was wondering how the Indians survived without the rivers.Your post cleared it out. Thank you very much!