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Il Piccolo Fiume Sarno, Italia
The Little Sarno River, Italy

Marisela Turjillo, September 1, 2012

The Sarno River is in the Campania region of Italy, of which Naples is the capital. The area became part of the Roman Republic in the 4th century BCE and was named Campania felix, fertile countryside, descriptive of its rich and verdant character. Il Fiume Sarno, which courses through the region, is not noteworthy for its size or beauty, often being merely referred to as a stream. From its origin in the peaks of Mt. Sarno at an elevation of 1133 m. (3747 ft.) near the town that also bears its name, it flows for 24 km. (15.8 mi.) before emptying into the Gulf of Naples. Though a modest body of water, its location is noteworthy as it sits in the shadow of a magnificent geological formation – Mt. Vesuvius. An eruption of this stratovolcano in the year CE 79 buried and destroyed the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The eruption was witnessed and described in writing by Pliny the Younger, a Roman historian, in what is now the oldest surviving written description of that cataclysmic event. Large-volume, violent eruptions like that of Mt. Vesuvius in CE 79 are now called Plinian eruptions.

During the eruption Sarno River was almost entirely covered by volcanic deposits, changing its course and raising the beach levels so that the city of Pompeii, which before the eruption had been on the river and on the coast, was no longer located on either. The massive volume of volcanic deposits completely encased the topography of the 1st century Campanian countryside, creating an entirely different landscape. Recently, scientists have been able to use modern technology to digitally reconstruct the cultural landscape of the Roman period stratified underneath the modern day topography, identifying the layout of Roman farms and their agricultural production, an ancient network of roads, land use and the utilization of local building materials in its structures.

Between its point of origin and its point of discharge into the gulf of Naples Il Sarno crosses the Campanian provinces of Salerno, Avellino and Naples. The river and its tributaries drain an area of 500 sq. km. (310 sq. mi.) that is bounded by three mountain ranges – the Salerno Range, the Lattari Range and the Somma-Vesuvius volcano. With a population of 5.8 million in an area of 13,590 sq. km. (8,444 sq. mi.) the Campania region is the most densely populated region in Italy. Its rich and unique historical, cultural and architectural features make it a very popular national destination.

Within the past 50 years, however, Il Sarno has garnered a great deal of attention and fame; But unfortunately for the people of Campania, it is for being the most polluted river in Italy, and one of the most polluted bodies of water in the world. According to the author of an article about the river, it is now a toilet. Does this story sound familiar? A body of water in a magnificent setting, for millennia offering pristine beauty and bounteous gifts of life, unwittingly (and sometimes wittingly) robbed of its life-giving qualities. By the time there is an awareness of this and the note of alarm goes up the damage is almost irreversible. The post-mortem reports are all too similar for dying bodies of water across the planet.

Like the Yamuna River in India, the Yangtse River in China and other rivers the observation is that Sarno River is still in a near-pristine state at its source, as witnessed by the flora on the banks and fish in the waters. As it flows via channels through its namesake town of Sarno, it is still a viable stream of water. Soon after, at the confluence with two of its tributaries the pollution becomes visible. When the river reaches the town of Scafati, a scant 18 k. (11 m.) from the city of Sarno, the pollution is notably toxic. Indeed, there is one area within the Sarno Basin comprised of the towns of Acerra, Nola and Marigliano, that has been coined ‘the triangle of death.’ Deaths from liver cancer range from 20.8 per 100,000 for women and 34.5 per 100,000 for men while the national average is 14 deaths per 100,000. The same has been found when comparing the incidence of malignant, non-malignant and congenital illnesses in this region to other areas of Italy.

The causes contributing to this dire environmental scenario are similar to what we find in other bodies of water: the effects of overpopulation, dumping of industrial plant and waste-treatment effluents directly into the river, and runoff of agricultural pollutants. However, in this case there is also a very serious and more insidious practice carried out by the Italian mafia - that of illegal transport of toxic wastes from other highly industrialized regions of Italy into the Campania region. Recent reports have identified more than 1200 illegal hazardous dumpsites in the Campania region. These dangerously toxic waste products find their way from the illegal dump sites into the waters of the Sarno, and from these waters into crops, animals and drinking water supplies. The Italian government declared an environmental state of emergency in Campania almost thirty years ago but because of the corruption that seeps through many organizational layers little progress can be noted in efforts to protect it and restore it.

A historical review of the Campania region reveals an ancient and rich heritage beginning with the Greek colonies established in the 8th century BCE, an alliance with the Roman Republic in the 4th century BCE that brought about a flourishing Greco-Roman culture, the introduction of Christianity in the 1st century CE – reportedly by the Apostles Peter and Paul, feudalism of the dark and middle ages, and the addition into the melting pot of Germanic and Norman cultures. Imagine that throughout all of these centuries and millennia Il Fiume Sarno – Sarno River – was pure and alive. How is it possible that in 50 of those 3000 years of human history on the Sarno we’ve come close to destroying it? What efforts must we make now to restore this precious body of water? Although Il Piccolo Fiume Sarno may seem small in size and volume, it is actually HUGE because it gives and supports life for millions of humans, animals and other forms of life.

This is the awareness we must let in and hold. Each month Earth Healing Day holds that field of awareness and intention for an endangered body of water. This month every participant can hold this field of intention and visualize unprecedented efforts by all humans to respect and heal this precious body of water – the little Sarno River - that it may once again fulfill to its greatest capacity its purpose as a giver of life. Let us also hold that visualization and take other measures to heal bodies of water near and far, big and small.