The Piave River

A case of contended water [1]

Vajont: a useless tragedy
9 October 1963: the tragedy of Vajont destroyed three towns, killed two thousand people and instantly deprived the water management system of the Piave basin (to hydroelectric and agricultural purposes) of a reservoir containing about 150 million cubic metres of water. A fact that – beyond the reasons which brought about the catastrophe – should have alone persuaded the ENEL (the new hydroelectric power producing public company which was at the time buying the SADE private company) to revise their hydroelectric power production plans for the following years and, in the meantime, should have compelled the Italian Government to start a revision of the number of the disciplinary regulations relating the licenses given to the Land Reclamation Bodies of the plains.
As a matter of fact, nothing happened. On the contrary, ENEL sticked to the settled power production targets and adapted them to the increasing development of industrial and built-up areas of the plains – up to now – through an exponential increase in exploitation of the Piave water. The Land reclamation Bodies progressively increased their taking share, now more than 20% higher than in 1963. Starting from that period, a new thirty year long tragedy began. A tragedy bearing a heavy burden of victims (the flood of 1966), causing great damages to land and things on the whole region (uncontrolled floods during the following years) and bringing about a hydraulic risk on large areas of the provinces of Venezia and Treviso, as stated by recent studies (1996) enclosed in the Provincial Land Plans of Belluno, Treviso and Venezia.
An exemplary case of water exploitation
In order to keep the planned targets, in the last few decades ENEL have fulfilled – with shocking methodicalness – a complete artificial transformation of the whole Piave river mountain basin (an area about 3.700 sq. wide), catching all the waters of the torrents flowing at high altitude, using – through integrated exploitation systems – the same water which is then pumped, canalised and finally directed to watersheds different from those of origin.
The artificial network which has by now deeply and irremediably changed the flow of the river, accounts for some 50 intakes which drain the water of torrents (about 75% of the flowing water, equal to more than 200 cubic metres a year) at a high altitude, a gigantic system made of more than 200 km pipes mostly running underground, 17 middle-sized reservoirs, 30 power plants and a number of other barrages and embankments. A dramatically example is given by the water issuing from the Marmolada glacier, which flows from a very high altitude towards the tributaries of the Piave, goes on through completely artificial courses until they flow into another river on the plain: the Sile; similarly, the water of the middle flow of the Piave is massively diverted (about 40 cm/s) towards the basin of the Livenza in West Friuli, for a further hydroelectric exploitation.
In 1997 the national power production has been 251 Md kWh. A share of 187 MD kWh has been produced by ENEL. ENEL produce the 18% of the total hydroelectric power. Particularly, in the province of Belluno, the same year it produced the 5% of the total hydroelectric power, equal to about 1,68 MD kWh.
Furthermore: the Land Reclamation Bodies of the plains went on using the water of the river Piave, taken from the natural flow of the river and diverted towards the catchment with great wastes due to obsolete irrigation systems (the “flood” method already introduced by the Serenissima Repubblica of Venice), the network having not been renovated for a long time.
The Brentella, the Destra and Sinistra Piave, the Basso Piave and the industrial Piavesella Land Reclamation Bodies for agricultural and partially private use, take from the river little less than 100 m3/s a year”, a very intensive use, considering that the natural average rate of flow of the river is 115 cm3/s and that during the low flow periods it can go far lower.
The picture of uses of the Piave is completed by the authorised takes (some big waterworks among which the Venice one) and the unauthorised ones (hundreds of industries of the higher plain in the Treviso area and thousands of private springs) taking from a spring area an enormous –difficult to estimate – quantity of water which should supply the water-bearing strata feeding a lot of water courses on the plain. As a consequence, the latter have dramatically reduced their rate of flow.
During the last thirty years, such a crazy exploitation has reduced by about 1/3 the flow of the Piave in its end reach; furthermore, it has completely dried up 90% of the torrents flowing at high altitudes, “deeply modifying the dynamics of torrent floods”, with abnormal structural consequences: the gravely river bed, which in certain reaches is some chilometres large, designed through centuries by floods and droughts, has rised on average by 3 m (up to 7 m, downriver of the Busche barrage) as its current has no longer strength enough to bring alluvia and sand downstream.
Consequently, the stretches of sand North of the lagoon of Venice (Cavallino, Jesolo, Eraclea) have been eaten away by the sea as no longer fed by the river; on the gravely plain shores whole coppices have grown up and now obstruct the downflow of floods; finally, the quality of water – which has almost completely disappeared on the high and medium flow of the river – has been seriously endangered by biological and industrial draining.
1988, giving back water to the Piave
In the light of such circumstances and considering the past and present damages caused by an intensive exploitation of the river, the people living in Belluno have been opposing more and more strongly.
“The content of the about 50 concessions regulationg the big water diversions to hydroelectric purpose in the province of Belluno and that affect the whole Piave catchment basin, highlights a very backward condition, clashing against the interests of the province of Belluno as regards land and environment”: this is stated in one of the many declarations issued by the Provincial Council of Belluno (11 December, 1995), later turned into a request of revision of concessions for hydroelectric and irrigation water exploitation. A document which was sent –on 4 January 1996 – to all the major central and local Government Bodies: from the Ministry of Public Works to the President of Veneto Regional Council.
This was not the first action on the matter made by the Province which, starting from December, 1992 had appointed a technical and scientific consulting committee charged of reviewing the disciplinary regulations on catchment, and particularly of making proposals relating water control.
Other actions had been previously undertaken: apart from a correspondence between the Province, ENEL, the Ministry concerned and the Basin Bodies, a letter sent by the President of the Province, Oscar de Bona, to the Majors and to the President of the mountain committee, points out the necessity of common actions in order to support – before the Government – the reasons of this controversy.
The year 1998 can be regarded – for Belluno and its Province – the year of water, or better, the year of the Piave. That period has been full of events and particularly relevant with reference to the long lasting controversy between local communities and all those people having been granted a concession for the use of water taken from the Piave basin.
Yet, 1998 has not only been the year when awareness of degradation and risk has become most evident and widespread, but also the year when two opposite and complementary circumstances have turned the condition of Piave into a national and international “case”.
First of all, the question of the progressive biological death of the river and of its dangerousness has been defined and illustrated in all their possible dramatical issues by the Province of Belluno that – in co-operation with the coast communes and with the technical support of a number of experts – has presented to the Government a decisive question, that’s to say the necessity that water management – through the revocation and the revision of disciplinary regulations – should be inspired by the principle of common good and that local communities should take part in the definition of new criteria of quality and quantity, setting as a primary and strategic goal the rearrangement of the natural balance, now seriously endangered.
For the first time, the Government has recognised that ethical and political value of this request, undertaking to set up a negotiation among all people involved and confirming – in principle – its agreement on the goal of giving back water to the river, so as to reinstate its biological life and, as far as possible, its natural condition.
Working through a technical structure – the Basin Authority – the Italian Government presented an excerpt plan for the Piave, which, to tell the truth, has been judged “in all its unacceptable inadequacy, by the Province of Belluno and by the communes involved”.
Nevertheless, it is advisable to consider this phase as an important step made along a still long path, as this river, due to the heavy artificial modifications it has been subjected to, starting from the Twenties up to now, unfortunately represents a borderline case of the industrial development of this century, very far from the natural course of things.
Setting a limit
Another aspect which has been growing in importance during 1998, thanks to the concern of the means of communication (newspapers, television, radio etc), has been a deep ethical and cultural meaning acquired by this controversy within a more global revision of the policy on the use of resources, which have been pursued by as the main producers up to now. The interest around this matter reached its climax last June when a group of national and international experts met in Belluno at the conference organised by the Centro Internazionale Civiltà dell’Acqua and discussed for four days the problem of how modern culture affects life on the mountains, with reference to water as an essential element of our material and cultural “morphology”.
The “case” of the Piave has become a litmus paper for many of the declarations which have been made during the last years in opposition to the old centralizing policy and as an essential condition for any future and modern policy. We are referring, obviously, to federalism or better to its practical realisation on a local level as far as a correct use of resources, goods and anything belonging to each community is concerned.
What reduced the Piave so badly if not the idea – consistently followed by the policy of the time – that water was at everybody’s disposal but, at the same time, could be “properly” exploited only by someone to partially common purposes; as a matter of fact, exploitation was brought about – to their own advantage – by a small number of groups and societies for a long time almost acting like a State within the State.
History and chronicle, in the Belluno area, dramatically confirm that the exploitation of water didn’t stop before anything, that no scruple (cultural, social, human and environmental) could lessen the projects of those who had built up an industrial monopoly on the plain areas (Porto Marghera) and created their own power sources on the mountains (SADE first and then ENEL).
The Piave is still there, with its shut in water, not only an evidence of the limit beyond which there is no way back in the relations between profits and development, integrity of land and rights of all living beings – but also an example of what development meant in places where an extraordinary richness of natural beauties (the waters of our mountains) went together with a feeble social and political resistance of the resident population (due to immigration and by the cultural isolation of the mountain communities). A form of radical exploitation nearer to classical colonialism than to an intensive exploitation.
Today, this page has been turned over, as was dramatically confirmed by the tragedy of Vajont, which has slowly aroused a growing self-awareness in the people living on the mountains. But this is only the beginning and we must consider the complexity of problems we must confront, with the will to understand them and intelligence to solve them.

[1]Renzo Franzin, L’acqua contesa: il caso del fiume Piave, Firenze 1999 – english translation by Manuela Giabardo, on behalf of the “T. Merlin” Association of Belluno”. This report is the result of the cooperation on this theme between the “Tina Merlin” association and the “Reform the World Bank Campaign”.