The suspect disappearance of a 500-foot waterfall

Shutterstock.com/ Ammit Jack

Ecuador is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The low cost of living and beautiful nature places it high on many people’s bucket lists. One of the main attractions of the country is the incredible waterfalls that are present in the country. The largest waterfall of all is the San Rafael waterfall. At least, it was the largest until it disappeared. 

The San Rafael waterfall was 150 meters or 500 feet high, 30m (100 feet) wide, and was incredibly powerful with an average flow rate of 400 m3/s. It attracted over 30,000 visitors every year until February 2nd, 2020 when the falls collapsed. Today all that remains is a slow trickle of the waterfall edge.

When the trickle first appeared people were understandably confused. Some thought that made maybe the river had dried up but it was flowing just as strongly upstream. Upon closer inspection, it became apparent that part of the riverbed had collapsed and the river was now flowing underground. The river no longer reached the waterfall lip with as much water content or force so all that remained was a slight trickle.

Experts have been trying to understand the cause of this riverbed collapse since the incident happened. According to recent investigations, it is being put down to natural occurrences. Alfredo Carrasco, a geologist, and former secretary of Natural Capital for the government of Ecuador says that the location of the falls was the key to its destruction. He points out how they were located in a region prone to both volcanic eruptions and earthquakes and the area was far from stable.

According to Carrasco, there was a very large earthquake in 1987 that created huge damage and flooding in the area. Perhaps this earthquake created some fracture that has been growing slowly over time. There was a volcanic eruption in 2008 that also could have damaged the riverbed. Whatever the cause, Carrasco maintains that it was clearly a natural occurrence. However, could events from 33 years and 12 years ago really be to blame for this strange activity?

Other geologists and environmentalists disagree. 20 km upstream of the waterfall a new hydroelectric plant had been built. Many now believe that is was this plant that led to the demise of the waterfall. A leading geologist by the name of Emilio Cobo who works for the South America Water Program says that a plant like this can create a phenomenon called ‘Hungry water’. Hungry water is when a river loses its sediment base the river automatically increases its erosion capabilities. Essentially in all rivers there is a bottom layer of dirt and soil that sits at the bottom of the river. This makes the riverbed bigger and stronger.

When a dam or electricity plant is built it will block off some of this sediment from flowing downstream, thereby weakening the riverbed. It is argued that was has been seen here in Ecuador has been seen many times before and there is plenty of evidence that this could happen. It is far more likely that the plant which was built 20km upstream only a few years before the collapse is to blame and not an earthquake or volcano from many years ago. 

This harsh reality shows that more care must be taken when we allow business and profit to take precedent over nature. While the direct results can appear harmless there are often huge impacts that will take place indirectly in the years to come. The worst part is that this disaster could have been easily avoided if people had done a little more research and cared a little more.