Years ago, I was drinking my morning coffee in Bovec in the company of Wojčicki, an engineer. And so, we came to the topic of the tragedy that had happened in Log pod Mangart, where seven people had been killed due to a landslide. “Don’t think that that’s a lot,” he started explaining. “The Italian village of Longarone was hit by an even bigger landslide. Several thousand people died there because of the inappropriate location of a dam.” That caught my attention and I immediately wrote down the key words “Longarone, accident, dam” in my electronic notes. In the evening, I searched the world wide web and found some documentary videos about it, so my curiosity was satisfied (at least temporarily).
But then came last summer when I treated myself to a canyoning trip to Italy again. I included the canyon of Zemola in the programme, not knowing that the road would lead past the Vajont Dam responsible for the fatal landslide. Seeing as I was in the neighbourhood, I had to examine the whole thing in more detail.
The closest I could get to the dam legally was by joining a guided tour. Unfortunately, the tourist guide’s English wasn’t too good and with my poor knowledge of Italian I wasn’t really able to follow what he was saying; what I grasped was mostly from his gestures. Even so, the view from the dam was one of the most interesting experiences of the past year. The whole story goes more or less as follows:
The Vajont Dam was built in the late 1950s when Italy had been facing a shortage of electrical energy for a while. The construction of the dam took three years and during this period they built the tallest dam (262 m) in the world at the time, which held 168 million cubic metres of water. For an easier understanding—that’s almost twice the volume of Lake Bohinj. The engineers planned for the reservoir to gather water from the Vajont River and produce, together with the water coming from several hydroelectric power stations higher up, 120 MW of electric energy (for comparison: the Slovenian nuclear power plant generates 696 MW). But the engineers made a mistake when designing it. The numbers were right, the structure of the rock used for anchoring was also appropriate. But they disregarded the warnings of the local population that opposed the construction from the start and notified them that the upstream bank below Monte Toc was unstable and prone to landslides. Monte Toc was even nicknamed the walking mountain.
Soon after the reservoir started to fill up, a landslide from below Monte Toc occurred on the left bank. From that point on, the area was constantly under observation and models were prepared to determine the effects of landslides of various scales. The calculations were reassuring and so they continued to fill up the reservoir even though the surface continued to slide constantly.
But then 9 October 1963 happened. After a few weeks of rain and constant erosion of the bank, at 10 p.m., a mixture of earth, scree and vegetation slid towards the valley at the speed of 110 km/h. The mass of 260 million cubic metres of material displaced 50 million cubic metres of water and created a 250 m high tsunami. The highest toll was in the village of Longarone, 2 km downstream from the Vajont Dam, as the crow flies. The crater created by the water was 60 m deep and 80 m wide. But the material damage hardly compares to the number of lives that were lost. It’s estimated that between 1900 and 2500 people in the wider Vajont Dam area died.
The Vajont Dam still stands. The tsunami didn’t damage it much. However, the capacity of the reservoir was reduced to the point that the generation of electrical energy is no longer possible. It would take several centuries to remove all the debris from the landslide if it was taken away by 100 lorries every day. Yet the Italians found a way for the dam to be useful: it’s possible to visit it on a guided tour that enables you to walk on top of it. In 2008, UNESCO placed it among one of five cautionary tales warning us about the failure of engineers and geologists. I would simply name the remains of the dam the tallest monument to greed.
After visiting Vajont it took me quite some time before I could gather my thoughts. I was overwhelmed. In front of my eyes, there was a large mass that changed the landscape behind the dam beyond recognition. Before the dam, this was a 260-metre-deep canyon but after it there is a smaller plateau about 350 m above what used to be a river bed. The engineers ignored the warnings and didn’t know that they would, in just a few years, cause so much damage that it could only be undone—in order to return to the initial situation— by several centuries of work. All of this was brought on by greed and disregard for warnings, just so that the SADE company could produce more electricity and earn more. More money = more happiness?! This fact triggers an uncontrolled association with today’s society. It has been instilled into us that we constantly need new transitory gadgets that become obsolete in a few years’ time and usually just become waste and fashionable clothes that rarely see more than one or two springs. In the background, this is how we line the coffers of corporations, create the need for Vajonts and increase our carbon footprint.
As it’s the first Friday of the year, I propose a challenge. Every time you want a new “toy”, a piece of furniture or clothes, first think about whether this will make you happy in the long run. Will society benefit from it? And if the answer is no … Then … Then … It’s better not to go through with the purchase. By doing so you’ll contribute to preserving a piece of the environment for posterity. And if you do this for some time, you’ll be proud of it. Consequently, you’ll also be happier.