Dams are built to provide water for irrigation, home and industrial use and hydroelectricity. These structures are constructed on rivers and their junctions in and are normally located upstream.
However, in the course of history, a number of towns and structures have been submerged by dam projects when the need for their construction necessitated these dams to be erected in residential areas.
Such are the cases in a number of countries where submerged structures, normally churches, reemerge when water level is low.
Among the churches that were submerged by these water engineering projects include the 15th-century Krokhino’s Nativity Church in Vologda Oblast, Russia, in the 1960s; the French missionaries-built, Neo-Gothic, 1860s Holy Rosary Church in Kartanaka, India, which was drowned by the Hermavati Dam; and Reservoir in 1960; the Neo-Gothic church in Potosi, Venezuela, in 1985 due to the La Honda Dam and the old Petrolandia Church in Penambuco, Brazil, in the 1980s.
The 400-year-old Dominican church in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, gained prominence in 2015 when it emerged from the Benito Juarez Dam when the water level ran low. The dam was built in the 1960s.
Perhaps the most controversial of all these dams is the Three Gorges Dam in China, constructed from 1994 to 2003, which affected more than a hundred old towns and cities along the mighty Yangtze River.
In the Philippines, one classic example is the old town of Pantabangan in Nueva Ecija. It was submerged by the construction of the Pantabangan Dam in the 1970s, leading to a mass exodus of its residents to another area.
Located in the northeastern portion of Nueva Ecija and with cool weather due to its elevation, Pantabangan was founded by the Augustinians in 1701. They continued to minister the town until 1739 when it was passed on to the Franciscans with Fr. Andres de San Miguel as parish priest.
Its church of stone (rubblework) and bricks, dedicated to San Andres, was constructed under the direction and “indefatigable zeal” of Father Benito de la Pila with the help of the parishioners from 1837 to 1841, measuring 45 varas long and 14 and a half varas wide. Vara is a Spanish measurement which is approximately one yard.
Fr. De la Pila also constructed the town’s casa parroquial during the same period using the same materials.
In the mid-19th century, Pantabangan was noted to have a primary school, a jail and a casa tribunal made of bamboo and nipa.
What’s interesting about the church is that it contained a painted image of the Nuestra Señora de la Antigua, the venerated patron of the Binatangan mission located about two leguas (less than 10 kilometers) north of Pantabangan.
The image, along with two small bells and church objects from Bintangan, were transferred to the church of Pantabangan in the early 19th century due to a virus outbreak in the former, resulting to its depopulation.
Binatangan was founded as a mission by the Franciscans in mid-18th century and prospered until 1817 when the said outbreak struck.
Meanwhile, devotion to the image lasted until 1860. There is no available information yet on what happened to that devotion.
In the 19th century, the town of Pantabangan was noted to produce sugarcane, corn and rice with an abundant supply of wood for construction and furniture-making. The wood species found there include, among others, yakal, narra, kamagong and batikuling.
The town also had buffalo and boar products which were traded in the market of Gapan. The residents would return to Pantabangan, bringing with them textiles and other products that they needed.
It was not yet clear what happened to the church of Pantabangan, but by 1923, it was in ruins — roofless and with the second level of its facade to its pediment gone.
An image from the Luther Parker collection of the National Library in that year shows the church with a most likely makeshift chapel inside.
The lower level of the facade was possibly demolished in the following decades because prior to the construction of the dam, the church sported a new, simple concrete facade pierced by the main portal at the center and a pair of arched vertical windows on both sides. The Spanish-era side walls and the apse were intact.
About three decades ago, when water level was also low, church historian Regalado Trota Jose was able to document the ruins which was published in his book, Simbahan: Church Art in Colonial Philippines, 1565-1898 (Ayala Museum, 1991). The shell was still intact with the buttresses still visible.
The last time the water level was low and the church ruins became visible was around six years ago. Its recent sighting due to the low water level had social media abuzz and attracted boatloads of visitors.
The church is now completely leveled, most likely due to water pressure but remnants of which are still extant.
Aside from the church, the town’s temporarily exposed underwater heritage structures include a brick gate beside the church, a pedestal of the monument of Jose Rizal in front of what was then the municipal hall, the front gate with the adjoining walls of the municipio, the stairs of a hall, house parts and the old cemetery with its niches.
These tangible evidence of the town’s past are orthy to be recognized as one of the significant heritage sites in the country.
The old Pantabangan town’s declaration as a heritage site is going to be historic and unique, as it will be the first underwater, former terrestrial habitation area to be declared significant, with the hope that it will lead to its protection and, if possible, preservation.