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main index   © Jeff Matthews   entry Sept 2004,  most recent update Jan 2017


Cleaning up the Sarno River



The Sarno river is in the Campania region of Italy (of which Naples is the capital city). It rises from the slopes of Mt. Sarno near the town that also bears that name. On its way to empty into the gulf of Naples near the Rovigliano Rock, between Castellammare di Stabia and Torre Annunziata, the river passes through the Campanian provinces of Salerno, Avellino and Naples. The Sarno is 24 km long, and the Sarno basin (that is, the area drained by the river and its tributaries) covers 500 sq. km, an area confined by the Picenti mountain range, the Salerno range, the Lattari range, and the Somma-Vesuvius volcano. That area is densely populated, containing 750,000 inhabitants.

The Sarno is the most polluted river in Italy. A toilet. The situation is aggravated by large-scale dumping of untreated agricultural and industrial waste into the river. Additionally, the area is also tormented by frequent flooding and mudslides; in the last 20 years, the banks have ruptured two or three times a year, causing spill-over of polluted waters into the adjacent countryside with all the risk to public health that that implies. The manmade drainage canals and sewers along the length of the river, meant to handle run-off from rainwater by channeling it into the river, are also frequently clogged with debris and even cemented over in some places, thus increasing the flood risk even more.

Sarno
                      riverPollution levels "evolve" along the length of the Sarno. At the source, near Mt. Sarno itself, the river is still in a rather natural state (though "pristine" in an area of 750,000 people is perhaps stretching the description a bit). Flowers grow on the banks and fish swim in the waters. As it is channeled through the town of Sarno, itself, at the foot of the Picenti range, it is still a pleasant little stream (photo, right). A few kilometers farther along, however, at the confluence with the Cavajola river (flowing from its source near Cava dei Tirreni) and the Solofana river (from the mountains in the province of Avellino), the pollution picks up and is visible. There are dumps along the banks. By the time you get to Scafati, there is chemical foam in the water.

So, is there any good news? Maybe. The plan is to clean up the entire the length of the river plus the tributaries for a grand total of 170 km of waterway. The result would be a Sarno Park and would fit into the entire environmental campaign to protect the area, which, for example, now also includes the Vesuvius National Park right next door. Dredging has already begun to clear away an estimated 1,200,000 cubic meters of refuse from the water. (Imagine a cube one football field on a side. Now, fill it with refuse. Now, empty it.) Part of the plan involves incentives for the 500 small factories along the Sarno to stop dumping. ("Please stop dumping" signs are probably not going to do the trick.) The happy-happy politicos predict a two-year project, after which time we will be able to frolic in the pure waters of the sea near the mouth of the river. They must be kidding, but any start is welcome.

add: August 2011

Well, seven years have passed and I have not yet frolicked in the pure waters of the sea near the mouth of the Sarno. I guess these things take time. It wouldn't be the first time they have tried to do something about the river. The image on the right is from a much less crowded and polluted time in Neapolitan history. The painting is by Giovanni Serritelli (1810-1860) and is in the San Martino National Museum in Naples. It is entitled "Straightening the Course of the Sarno at Scafati." It shows the festivities at the opening of the new, straightened river on September 19, 1858 (propitious, indeed; that is the feast day of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples). The scene is the culmination of years of work to "fix" the river. The work was primarily aimed at shortening the length of the river; they cut it in half by eliminating the many small turns and "oxbows." This had a threefold effect: (1) it got rid of the stagnant pools of still water and swamps along the river that were breeding grounds for insects; (2) the Bourbons were planning to move their main munitions factory to that area and a "tighter" river would increase the hydraulic energy available to mills in the factory; (3) it provided a straighter and faster route for such munitions to reach the open sea and the fleet.


updates from 2014: new marina opened near the mouth of the Sarno;
also see
this related Green Schooner
item, and this one.

most recent date, Jan 2017

(My original entry from 2004 is at the top of this page; there are other updates directly above.) I note that the agency responsible for restoring the river is ARCADIS (Regional Campanian Agency for the Defense of the Soil), in existence since 2004. One of its major efforts continues to be “The Great Project for the Sarno River.” Part of that project was completed in 2016 by the installation of 14 monitoring stations within the Sarno basin (they all look like the adjacent image.) Note that these devices check the quality of water but do nothing to improve it. So in spite of this major and necessary bit of technology, the physical state of the water flowing downstream into the bay at the mouth of the Sarno is more or less what it was as described in 2014 by the journal, Environmental Earth Sciences, June 2014, Volume 71, Issue 12, pp 5129–5143:

The Sarno River basin area is one of the most polluted in Europe and it is due to the waste products of the tomato industry, the leather tanneries and the pharmaceutical industry... this paper represents a detailed study to assess the potentially harmful element content of topsoils. In total, 283 soil samples were collected and analyzed...The results obtained indicate that soil pollution has different anthropogenic sources...
Note anthropogenic. It is all manmade, caused by excessive and illegal dumping by small companies and private citizens alike. As well, the degraded condition of sewers and collectors that channel waste water to the water treatment plants along the river means that those plants are not operating anywhere near capacity. Recent articles in the popular press from 2016 were not much different from 10 years ago. All efforts are hindered by inefficient bureaucracy and the presence of organized crime, and the “money tree” (planted by various international agencies to save the environment) is picked before much of the "fruit" ever falls into the Sarno where it belongs.


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