Dam the Mediterranean

In 1929 Bavarian architect Herman Sörgel proposed building a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar and shrinking the Mediterranean.

Atlantropa
Sylvia Huber / CC BY-SA

Last year I wrote about the time that the Strait of Gibraltar was sealed by tectonic activity and the Mediterranean dried up. That happened millions of years ago, but it inspired one German architect to propose that it be done again, this time on purpose. Herman Sörgel’s idea was to build a massive hydroelectric dam across the strait, dramatically drop the sea level of the Mediterranean, irrigate the Sahara (reminiscent of my Green Sahara post from May of last year), and unite Europe and Africa.

The idea was an appealing one in 1929. Germany was on an expansionist bent for much of the first half of the 20th century, and the world ended up with two world wars because of it. Finding a peaceful way to open up new land for settlement without killing millions of people was a noble goal, and Sörgel’s idea would do just that. Lowering the sea level would turn the Adriatic Sea (between Italy and the Balkans) into rich farmland. The hydroelectric dam would provide enormous amounts of electricity to Europe, fuelling its expansion. The lower sea level would open up the possibility of a bridge between Tunisia and Sicily, aiding the European colonisation and control of northern Africa. Sörgel also planned to dam the Congo River. This would rebuild the depleted Lake Chad to the extent that it could irrigate the Sahara: more farmland for eager Europeans.

So, why was this a horrible idea? Well, the obviously icky and rapacious colonial claims stemmed from a long-standing German ambition to unite Europe and Africa (“Eurafrica”) as a balance against the perceived rising superpowers Asia and America. On a practical level, a dam across the Strait of Gibraltar would be a ridiculously complex engineering effort. And the end result would strand most of the existing seaside towns and cities of the Mediterranean. Imagine the death of the French Riviera. Imagine Rhodes un-harboured. Imagine a dry Venice…

Sörgel’s ideas were popular before World War II, and briefly afterwards as well, but it never took off and after his death in 1952 basically disappeared beneath the waves.

[Thanks to Gareth E. for suggesting this topic.]

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