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What the river hides

2023 - in progress
Latvia

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Last summer I spent a lot of days on the Daugava river. I rode my bike further and further, from the mouth to the source, until one day my path was blocked by a huge dam. This concrete shaft crossed the river and the island. On the island I found a small sign with a brief story saying that in fact only half of the island remained, and the other part was flooded because of the construction of several hydroelectric power stations on the Daugava river during Soviet times.
 

In an attempt to imagine what had gone under the water I began to ask people who live near the river, historians and archaeologists. So I learned how this project of the Soviet empire to use the forces of nature changed the landscape of the river, its nature and life of people, who had lived on the banks of the river for many generations. 
 

The issue of optics and gaze is very important to me. I try to find the way the river could speak for herself. That's why I work also with video of the river, its voice and traces, personal archives and stories of witnesses, with maps of places that no longer exist. And I still go to the river almost every day in an attempt to see what the river hides.

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A woman bathes in the Riga HPP reservoir. Salaspils 2023

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The stump of tree that were felled during the Riga HPP’s construction. Negative. Ikšķile, 2023

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The Riga HPPs altered the landscape of the Daugava river and its banks. The reservoir spread over an area of 35 square kilometers (13.5 square miles). Dole Island, the largest island on the Daugava River, lost almost half of its territory, while the nearby islands of Mārtiņsala and Nulpe were fully submerged. The modern territory of the Riga reservoir is marked above the map from 1936th. This allows you to see some of the areas flooded as a result of the construction of the Riga Hydroelectric Power Station.

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Artificial concrete riverbanks built along the shores of the Riga reservoir brought the water level up to about 10 meters (33 feet) above ground level. For many years water has been wearing away the concrete surface of the multi-kilometer dam, leaving its traces on it. Negative photographs reveal cracks and potholes that are usually in the shadows and make these messages of the river more visible. Salaspils, 2023

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The Riga HPP dam. Salaspils, 2023

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Fragment of the Riga HPP. Salaspils, 2023

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The Riga HPP dam. Salaspils, 2023

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This used to be the Daugava’s bank, but it’s now the bottom of the Riga HPP reservoir. Ikšķile, 2023

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The stations’ construction had a significant impact on the Daugava’s ecosystem. One of the biggest consequences was that the new dams disrupted the migrations of fish.  
A fisherman near the Riga HPP. Salaspils Municipality, 2023

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According to official figures, the stations cause an annual loss of approximately 200 metric tons of salmon, 50 metric tons of sea trout, 70 metric tons of blue whiting, 50 metric tons of lampreys, two metric tons of eels, and 24 metric tons of other fish. To compensate for the losses, the Latvian government’s BIOR Institute raises in its fish hatcheries 6.3 million fish (eight different species) each year. 

A fisherman at night on the Riga HPP dam, 2023

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The Ķegums HPP and a fish pass (left). The fish pass is no longer in use today because the Riga HPP blocks fish coming from the Baltic Sea from traveling this far up the Daugava River. Ķegums, 2023

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A man bathes in the Daugava. Riga, 2023

Once a year, Latvia’s state energy company, Latvenergo, drains the water from its HPP reservoirs for preventative maintenance work. In some areas, this reveals the stumps of felled trees and the foundations of demolished buildings. At this time traces of up side down world become visible.

The Riga HPP reservoir. Salaspils, 2024

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Vilnis Roze was born on the Dole island and lived there until he was 20 years old.  He told me:"The future reservoir’s territory began behind my family’s garden. I saw with my own eyes how everything was cut down, removed, and dug up; the process was barbaric and the residents weren’t asked about anything. Bulldozers regularly encroached on our family’s garden. They were massive — they looked like tanks. I was 14 or 15 years old, and one time, late at night, when this vehicle came into our garden yet again, I climbed into its tracks to stop it from running over our apple trees.”

Photo: Vilnis Roze’s house on Dole Island. Personal archive of Vilnis Roze, 1961. Printed on
transparent tracing paper

Video:  Daugava, shore of Dole Island

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The Riga HPP presented an insurmountable obstacle for fish populations traveling back and forth from the Baltic Sea to spawn in the upper reaches of the river. Essentially, the entire Daugava, as well as the rivers and lakes connected to it that cover more than 60 percent of Latvia’s territory, was cut off. Initially, there was a plan to build a fish pass in the Riga HPP, but because of cost-cutting measure the fish pass was never built.

Photo: Fishermen on the Daugava River, 1930s. Rudīte Ķikuste’s personal archive

Video:  fragment of the Riga HPP, 2023

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When it became clear that Staburags’s flooding was inevitable, people from all over the country began making pilgrimages to the site . Archeologist Juris Urtāns visited the area several times during his childhood, before it was submerged. He told me: “People hiked along the Daugava, slept next to the river, and went out on rafts to preserve it in their memories however they could”

Photo:
 A man stands next to the Staburags cliff, 1962. Lost Latvia project / National Library of Latvia. Printed on transparent tracing paper

Video:  Daugava, the Pļaviņas HPP reservoir near Staburags 

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After the construction of the Plavinas HPP, Latvia lost one of the most beautiful places of its nature - the dolomite canyon of the Daugava. The rocky banks of the river, up to 40 meters high and almost 25 kilometers long, from Plavines to Koknes, went under water. Along with them, many important monuments of Latvian culture went under water. Koknese Castle was a popular tourist site. Until 1966, it was located atop a high cliff, but after the construction of the Pļaviņas HPP, the road and bridge leading to the castle were flooded.


Photo:  Koknese Castle, 1930s. Archive of Voldemārs Rains. Printed on transparent tracing paper

Video:  Daugava, the Pļaviņas HPP reservoir

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A map of the Pļaviņas HPP reservoir and the natural and historic sites that were flooded due to its construction.

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The construction of the Pļaviņas HPP, 1965. The banner reads, “We’ll make the water of the Daugava work for Communism!”. Aizkraukle museum of History and Art, exposition "Soviet years"

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Aizkraukle museum of History and Art, exposition "Soviet years". Suit of a hydrological engineer of the Pļaviņas HPP. Aizkraukle, 2023

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Aizkraukle museum of History and Art, exposition "Soviet years". Aizkraukle, 2023 

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Fragment of ice jam on the Daugava. Pļaviņas, 2024

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Aizkraukle museum of History and Art, exposition "Soviet years". Suit of a diver working on the construction of the Pļaviņas HPP. Aizkraukle, 2023 

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Floods and ice jams have always existed on the Daugava, even before the construction of the hydroelectric power station cascade. Under natural conditions, they occurred due to the peculiarities of water flow. After the construction of the cascade, ice jams intensified, because the natural flow of water was slowed down, and the river valley was constantly filled with water. This happens especially often in the reservoir of the Plavinas hydroelectric power station in the area of the cities of Pļaviņas and Jēkabpils. Pļaviņas, 2024

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The Riga HPP reservoir. Salaspils, 2023

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Power lines across the Daugava River. Salaspils, 2023

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