In February 2002 the floodgates opened on the controversial Barragem de Alqueva (Alqueva Dam), filled by the waters of the Rio Gaudiana and several tributaries. At 250 square kilometres (of which 69 square kilometres are in Spain), it’s Europe’s largest reservoir. Plans for the project started decades ago under the Salazar regime, with the aim of providing reliable irrigation in this arid region and jobs in the agricultural and tourism industries. There are many who still lament the destruction of over a million oak and cork trees in its construction and the resulting threats to the habitats of golden eagles and the even rarer Iberian lynx, plus the submerging of over 200 prehistoric sites. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the former village of Luz on the east bank of the Guadiana, now submerged, were relocated to a facsimile village above the waterline which, despite similarities of appearance, has become something of a failed experiment; the younger villagers having left and the older ones are deeply dissatisfied.
The government points to the benefits of the dam, not least the hydroelectric plant, switched on in 2004, which provides enough electricity to supply the Évora and Beja districts combined. Smooth new roads also now radiate from the dam, which has become something of a tourist attraction in its own right, the deep waters lapping on one side, a sheer drop on the other. A little beyond the car park by the dam is a Centro de Informação which details how the dam was built and how it powers the area, as well as providing information on boat trips you can take on the waters themselves.