Sarno in Italy: saving Europe’s dirtiest river

World mirror

Status: 20.11.2021 8:40 a.m.

It bubbles, foams and stinks: the Sarno south of Naples is considered to be the most polluted river in Europe. Now the environmental police stand up for his protection. Is that enough?

By Rüdiger Kronthaler, ARD-Studio Rome

At the source, the Sarno looks like a river from a picture book: residents stand around a fountain, fill up the water bottles they have brought with them and one after the other bend their heads under the jet of cool water to drink. The water is crystal clear. It will only remain in this state for a few hundred meters.

Rüdiger Kronthaler
ARD-Studio Rom

Almost within sight of the source, warm, milky water rushes into the river under a car bridge. It smells like chlorine. Environmental activists confirm: The wastewater comes from an adjacent factory. It is the first of many more such illegal inflows that will follow on the short 24 kilometers of the river.

Sarno – the dirtiest river in Europe

Rüdiger Kronthaler, ARD Rome, Weltspiegel, 11/19/2021

Work has long been more important than environmental protection

The Sarno Basin was industrialized in the 1960s. Mainly tomato can and leather factories settled there south of Naples. Unemployment was high, the region was looking forward to the jobs, and people turned a blind eye to environmental standards. So it became a custom that a large number of factories drained their industrial wastewater into the Sarno without being treated. The administration shied away from taking consistent action against environmental sins because it feared that industry would migrate, explains Aldo Padovano from the “Acqua Sarnella” group.

Just a few hundred meters below the source, the Sarno is a dirty, stinking broth.

Bild: picture alliance / Pacific Press

The result is that the water is heavily chemically contaminated. There are arsenic, mercury, chlorides. In a study by the University of Naples, researchers examined frogs from the Sarno and found severe malformations and abnormal genetic changes in some animals. A connection between the polluted water and human diseases has not yet been scientifically investigated. However, according to the health department, the number of malformations in children and mortality in the region are above the national average.

Environmental activists call for an emergency

The area is extremely densely populated: Almost a million people live here in the more than 40 faceless small towns that have grown rapidly and haphazardly since the 1960s and which now merge into one another without any contours. The river Sarno, which connects them all, is split up into many small canals and over long stretches of which streets and houses are built over. Only the stench of the water wafts through the residential areas. The Sarno no longer offers people an identification – accordingly there is no common struggle for the river.

On the contrary: the communities themselves steal their river. Because many areas are not connected to any sewage treatment plant. According to estimates by the environmental organization Legaambiente, the toilet water of around 500,000 people still flows untreated into the Sarno. Environmental activists are demanding that the communities in the Sarno Basin declare an ecological emergency so that the Ministry of the Environment can intervene in Rome. According to projections, 1.4 billion euros have flowed into municipalities since the 1980s to build sewage treatment plants. But hardly anything was built.

“Health first, profit second,” demands a demonstrator with a poster at a demonstration organized by “Acqua Sarnella”.

Bild: picture alliance / Pacific Press

Police take action against factories

The police special unit for environmental crimes has, however, tightened the pace. As part of a major raid, the Carabinieri systematically took on one factory after the other and examined the discharges. The result is shocking: 60 percent of the farms examined have discharged untreated water into the Sarno. There were 250 complaints, two arrests and 50 temporary closures.

The Camorra have their fingers in the game, say the police. The factories mainly wanted to cut purification costs, says Pasquale Starace, commander of the special unit for environmental crimes. He announced that he would keep the factories under observation and also investigate the lost money for the sewage treatment plants that were never built.

Rethinking during the corona lockdown

Environmental protection has not played a role in the area for decades. When the factories came to a standstill during the Corona lockdown and the water of the Sarno suddenly became clearer, the population became aware of their river again. The activists fear that this will not be enough. Even if the chemical supply were stopped immediately, it would take decades for the flora and fauna of the Sarno to recover. The sediments of the Sarno need ecological remediation. However, this is not yet provided for in the recovery plan of the Italian government.

At the mouth of the Sarno you can see the gray Vesuvius and the island of Capri in the distance. In antiquity, the Sarno was worshiped and his own river god was assigned to him. Today it is blocked, economically exploited to the maximum and flushes cloudy, brown water into the Gulf of Naples. After a few meters it mixes with the sea water – out of sight, out of mind.

You can see these and other reports on Sunday, November 21, 2021 at 7:20 pm in the “Weltspiegel”.

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