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The Apulian Aqueduct

The Italian region of Puglia (darkened section in map, right) forms the back of the boot of the Italian peninsula, extending from the Gargano spur down the Adriatic some 500 km (300 miles) to the town of Santa Maria di Leuca at the very tip of the heel, where tradition says that Aeneas first landed and where the apostle Peter landed to start his Christianizing of Italy. That part of the peninsula has always been known as arid and, indeed, Puglia’s famous son, Horace, described his native land 2,000 years ago as having a “thirst that rises to the stars.” Even today, as you drive along modern roads, your eye is drawn to the presence along the ground of cisterns carved out of rock for the catchment of rainwater.

A solution to the eternal thirst of the area arrived in the form of the Apulian aqueduct, one of the largest construction projects undertaken in the early 20th century in Italy. Construction was started in 1906 and declared finished in 1939. That period included interruptions by Italy’s involvement in WWI. There was then some damage to the aqueduct in WW II, and there has been frequent work and expansion over the last 70 years.

A bridge section of the Apulian
aqueduct in the province of Bari

The plan was ingenious: since there were no truly useful rivers to channel in Puglia, engineers went north and tapped the headwaters of the Sele River in the mountains near Avellino in the Campania region, on the other (western) side of the Apennine watershed. The Sele flows naturally down to the west for 64 km to empty into the Gulf of Salerno near Paestum, but the aqueduct rerouted some of the water back across the watershed and distributed it to the east through 1,600 kilometers of main and branch lines. A report in the New York Times in 1914 on the ongoing project said, “ is on a scale which gives it rank in the history of civilization as an ambitious project.” The plan called for the piercing of the Apennine range with a tunnel of 15 km (9.4 miles) to get the water to the eastern side of the mountains. Twenty-thousand workers were on the job, and the project was due to be finished by 1916. That didn’t happen, but the first section, bringing freshwater to Bari, was in operation by 1915.

Graphically, the layout of the Apulian aqueduct is not that of a single water conduit, but more like a web laid over the landscape, which accounts for the considerable total length. Today, the entire length of the aqueduct, including primary and secondary lines is 2189 km (1360 miles), serving the more than 4 million inhabitants in the 258 cities, towns and villages in the 6 provinces that make up the region of Puglia. Along its length, the aqueduct passes through 99 tunnels (109 km/67 miles in total length) and over 91 bridges. Ideally, the flow from the Sele into the system is 4000 liters (1,056 US/880 imperial gallons) a second. In 1964, a second feeder source, the Calore river, was joined to the aqueduct to increase the supply of water. Problems with maintenance, including those arising from the 1980 earthquake in the south, have not always allowed the system to function at ideal capacity.

Upgrades are always in progress somewhere along the length. These might include modernization such as electronic flow control as well as simply looking for leaks and illegal taps along the line. The aqueduct is run by the Acquedotto Pugliese corporation, an agency that also takes care of other items of hydrological import in Puglia such as 10,000 km of sewage lines, 170 water purification plants, artificial catchment basins, artesian wells and desalinization plants.

other entries on aqueducts: (1)   (2)  (3)

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