Learning about water from the Sahara Desert
by Cristina Zenato
The red streaks through the calcite decorations give a beautiful tone to the ceiling of the cave. Their meander appears across the ceiling, along the floor, and remains imprinted telling us about an ancient story similar to the ones of the fossils found in the same environment. These caves are underwater, their formations stopped in time by the rising of the ocean levels, their growth resumed following another ice-age, in tune with the worlds’ passing of time. They are the history of this planet carved in underwater passageways and reveal how it was and how it came to be. They might be considered as an ancient piece of knowledge, but they also teach us about the present, the actions and inactions we might take as human species. They teach us something about the consequences of our behavior. These red streaks are the remains of the Sahara Desert dust blown across the ocean to land and mix with the rainwater, through the terrain, the limestone layers of these islands so disconnected and yet so connected with such a distant land and different landscape. These red streaks decorate the flowstones of underwater caves in the Bahamas and give us information beyond their beauty.
Polluted cave close to an industrial area, called Mermaid’s Pond/Chimney a project I worked on many years ago to demonstrate how pollutants travel underwater through the different cave systems and can go from land to ocean.
After hurricane Dorian I found myself driving through the island to help where I could, distributing goods as they arrived, running out before I could even finish a road, collecting at the same time stories of floods, survival, death, hope and desperation, watching people carve their homes empty of any content and putting it to rot under the relentless sunshine on the side of the road, in front of their homes. I drove through areas where the concrete homes didn’t even survive the crashing power of the ocean running wild over these low-laying islands with a destructive force never witnessed before.
I watched properties spread across lawns, empty land, dangling from trees scorched by the force of this forty hours long tsunami that stripped the island and its people of everything.
I drove and took care of those I came across as best as I could, the items in the truck never enough to fill the void left behind by the devastation. As I brought in suitable drinking water, the tap water compromised by salt water from the flood, food, baby supplies, women and general hygiene products, tarps, cot beds, tents, inflatable matrasses, clothes, shoes I watched as the piles in front of these areas became bigger and the discarded new garbage created by these products came to add to the pile of the old.
Clean cave in the Lucayan National Park, another project I worked on ten years ago to guarantee the protection of the full cave.
As a cave diver and explorer of these beautiful passageways I cannot stop making the connection between what is accumulating on the top and what rests below our feet.
The Bahamas are gifted with an incredible fresh water supply, rainwater filtered by the natural scrubbing power of the limestone, resting on a layer of saltwater, coming in from the ocean through the intricate passageways connecting these caves to the mangroves and the ocean areas in perfectly balanced and self-sustaining eco-systems.
The red streaks teach us that any material even of the consistency of sand can make it through this filtering system and settle within. The red streaks teach us that if we allow our own disposed modern chemicals to filter through the terrain they will end up in the same location. All the debris and garbage produced by the hurricane is nobody’s fault but it’s everyone’s problem and it’s becoming bigger by the import of more man-made materials to substitute everything that has gone missing. Although it is impossible to change that series of events, we need to take in consideration the consequences. What are we going to do with all this debris? What are we going to do with this additional garbage production brought in to help a destroyed population and lifestyle? Burning or burying them is not the solution as we can imagine they will, like those red streaks, find their way to the most precious element currently present under these islands: fresh water. Not only, once in the system they will flow through the ramifications of these caves to reach bays, mangroves and nursery grounds carrying with them all the particles, chemicals, remains unfiltered by a now tired and overused limestone. The situation is complicated as these islands lack any system of recycling, but the problem runs deep, and it comes from production and how we have learned a life of use and discard. The solution is not in one day, one month or in one year, but it is something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible to find its roots at the production level, when things are first generated. We are at the turning point when reduce, reuse and recycle are good for what we have already created but cannot be the answer to future productions.
“If we learn from the Sahara Desert sand, we need to look at how to avoid ‘human sand’ to filter through and extend the current damage to affect not only us but those coming after us.” Cristina Zenato