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|Official name||Italian: Diga del Vajont|
|Designed by||Carlo Semenza|
|Operator(s)||SADE – Società Adriatica di Elettricità (today part of Edison)|
|Dam and spillways|
|Type of dam||arch dam|
|Height||262 metres (860 ft)|
|Length||160 metres (520 ft) (chord)|
|Width (crest)||3.40 metres (11.2 ft).|
|Width (base)||27 metres (89 ft)|
|Creates||Lago del Vajont|
|Total capacity||168,715 thousand cubic metres (5,958,100×103 cu ft)|
The Vajont Dam (or Vaiont Dam) is a disused dam in northern Italy. It is one of the tallest dams in the world, with a height of 262 m (860 feet). It is in the valley of the Vajont River under Monte Toc, in the municipality of Erto e Casso, 100 kilometres (62 mi) north of Venice.
The dam was conceived in the 1920s and eventually built between 1957 and 1960 by Società Adriatica di Elettricità (SADE), at the time the electricity supply and distribution monopoly in northeastern Italy. The engineer was Carlo Semenza (1893–1961). In 1962 the dam was nationalized and came under the control of ENEL as part of the Italian Ministry for Public Works.
On 9 October 1963, during initial filling, a landslide caused a megatsunami in the lake in which 50 million cubic metres of water overtopped the dam in a wave of 250 metres (820 ft), which brought massive flooding and destruction to the Piave Valley below, leading to the destruction of several villages and towns, causing between 1,900 and 2,500 estimated deaths. The dam remained almost intact and two thirds of the water was retained behind it.
This event occurred after ENEL and the Italian government concealed reports and dismissed evidence that Monte Toc, on the southern side of the basin, was geologically unstable. They had disregarded numerous warnings, signs of danger and negative appraisals. Underestimating the size of the landslide, ENEL's attempt to safely control the landslide by lowering the lake's level came when disaster was almost imminent.
The dam was built by SADE, the electricity supply and distribution monopoly in north-eastern Italy. The owner, Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, had been Mussolini's Minister of Finances for several years. The 'tallest dam in the world', across the Vajont Gorge, was conceived in the 1920s to harness the Piave, Mae and Boite rivers, to meet the growing demand for power generation and industrialization. Not until the confusion after Mussolini's fall during World War II was the project authorized, on 15 October 1943.
The dam wall had a volume of 360,000 cubic metres (13 million cubic feet) and held up to 168.7 million m3 (5.96 billion cu ft) of water. The dam and basin were intended to be at the centre of a complex water management system in which water would have been channeled from nearby valleys and artificial basins at higher levels. Tens of kilometres of concrete pipes and pipe-bridges across valleys were planned.
In the 1950s, SADE's monopoly was confirmed by post-fascist governments, and it bought the land despite opposition by the communities of Erto and Casso in the valley, which was overcome with government and police support. SADE stated that the geology of the gorge had been studied, including analysis of ancient landslides and that the mountain was believed to be sufficiently stable.
Construction work started in 1957 but by 1959 shifts and fractures were noticed while building a new road on the side of Monte Toc. This led to new studies in which three experts separately told SADE that the entire side of Monte Toc was unstable and would be likely to collapse into the basin if the filling were completed. SADE took no notice and construction was completed in October 1959; in February 1960, SADE was authorised to start filling the basin. In 1962 the dam was nationalized and came under the control of ENEL as part of the Italian Ministry for Public Works.
Early signs of disaster
Throughout the summer of 1960, minor landslides and earth movements were noticed. Instead of heeding these warning signs, the Italian government chose to sue the handful of journalists reporting the problems for "undermining the social order".
On 4 November 1960, with the water level in the reservoir at about 190 metres (620 ft) of the planned 262 metres (860 ft), a landslide of about 800,000 m3 (30 million cu ft) collapsed into the lake. SADE stopped the filling, lowered the water level by about 50 metres (160 ft), and started to build an artificial gallery in the basin in front of Monte Toc to keep the basin usable even if additional landslides (which were expected) divided it into two parts.
In October 1961, after the completion of the gallery, SADE resumed filling the narrow reservoir under controlled monitoring. In April and May 1962, with the basin water level at 215 metres (705 ft), the people of Erto and Casso reported five "grade five" Mercalli intensity scale earthquakes. SADE downplayed the importance of these quakes, and was then authorized to fill the reservoir to the maximum level.
In July 1962, SADE's own engineers reported the results of model-based experiments on the effects of further landslides from Monte Toc into the lake. The tests indicated that a wave generated by a landslide could top the crest of the dam if the water level was 20 metres (66 ft) or less from the dam crest. It was therefore decided that a level 25 metres (82 ft) below the crest would prevent any displacement wave from over-topping the dam. A decision was made to fill the basin beyond that, because the engineers thought they could control the rate of the landslide by controlling the level of water in the reservoir.
In March 1963, the dam was transferred to the newly constituted government service for electricity, ENEL. During the following summer, with the basin almost completely filled, slides, shakes, and movements of the ground were continuously reported by the alarmed population. On 15 September, the entire side of the mountain slid by 22 centimetres (8.7 in). On 26 September, ENEL decided to slowly empty the basin to 240 metres (790 ft), but in early October the collapse of the mountain's south side looked unavoidable; in one day it moved almost 1 metre (3 ft).
The tests of the hydraulic model of the Vajont tank
After the discovery of the landslide on the northern slopes of Monte Toc, it was decided to deepen the studies on the following effects:
- dynamic actions on the dam;
- wave effects in the reservoir and possible dangers for nearby locations, with particular attention to the town of Erto;
- Hypothesis of a partial breakage of the dam and consequent examination of the rout wave and its propagation along the last stretch of the Vajont and along the Piave, up to Soverzene and beyond.
The study of point 1 was performed at the I.S.M.E.S. (Experimental Institute for Models and Structures) of Bergamo, while for the others the SADE decided to build a physical-hydraulic model of the basin, in which to perform some experiments on the effects of a landslide fall in a reservoir.
The 1: 200 scale model of the basin, which can still be visited today, was set up at the SADE hydroelectric plant in Nove (loc. Borgo Botteon di Vittorio Veneto), and became the C.I.M. (Hydraulic Models Centre). The experiments were entrusted to professors Ghetti and Marzolo, university professors of the Institute of Hydraulics and Hydraulic Constructions of the University of Padua, and were carried out with funding of SADE, under the control of the study office of the company itself.
The study aimed to verify the hydraulic effects on the dam and on the banks of the landslide reservoir, and was therefore directed in this sense rather than reproducing the natural phenomenon of the landslide. The experiments were carried out in two different series (August–September 1961 and January–April 1962), of which the first served substantially to refine the model.
The first set of experiments
The first series of 5 experiments began on August 30, 1961 with a sliding surface of the flat landslide inclined by 30°, consisting of a wooden plank covered with a sheet. The sliding mass was simulated with gravel, held in place by flexible metal nets, which were initially held in position by ropes that were then suddenly released. At the beginning of September, another 4 tests were carried out intended for orientation purposes. The first always with a 30° inclined plane, the following 3 with a 42° inclined plane. Having found it impossible to reproduce the natural geological phenomenon of the landslide in the model, the model was elaborated by modifying the movement surface of the landslide, which was replaced with a masonry one (the relative profiles were elaborated by Semenza, who also used the surveys that had already been carried out and that had provided sufficient elements of judgment in this sense), to make it possible to vary the speed of the landslide fall into the reservoir (made difficult by the new "back" shape of the movement surface). To simulate the compactness of the moving material (which in the model remained the gravel) rigid sectors were inserted which were towed by ropes pulled by a tractor.
The second set of experiments
In these 17 experiments, conducted from January 3, 1962 to April 24, 1962, the "collapsing" material was still gravel, this time held in place by hemp nets and cords. Starting from the Muller hypothesis relating to the different characteristics of the mass moving between the downstream part of the Massalezza stream (west) and the upstream part of the same (east), all the experiments were performed by making those two hypothetical parts of the landslide descend separately. In the model, however, the two landslides were initially made to descend at different times, so that their effects were totally separate and, subsequently, when the wave produced by the first came back, so as to obtain a total increase in the water of the even greater lake.
The final Ghetti report
The total increase of the water in the tank (measured by means of special instruments) was broken down into "static increase", which was the non-transient effect of increasing the level of the water left in the tank after the landslide due to the immersion of the landslide in the tank (once the state of rest is reached again), and in "dynamic boost", due to the temporary wave motion produced by the landslide. The static boost depended on the volume of the landslide that remained immersed in the tank, while the dynamic boost depended almost exclusively on the speed of the landslide fall (while it was negligibly linked to the volume of the same).
Based on this simulation (following the disaster object of criticism, as considered approximate by some) it was determined that by placing a reservoir limit at an altitude of 700 metres (2,300 ft) there would be no damage above 730 metres (2,400 ft) a.s.l. along the banks of the reservoir, while a minimum quantity of water would have exceeded the edge of the dam (722.5 metres (2,370 ft)) causing negligible damage downstream of the same.
- With the reported experiences, carried out on a 1:200 scale model of the Vajont lake-reservoir, we tried to provide an evaluation of the effects that will be caused by a landslide, which is possible to occur on the left bank upstream of the dam. . Given that the extreme limit downstream of the landslide is more than 75 m from the embankment of the dam, and that the formation of this embankment is of compact and consistent rock and well distinct, even geologically, from the aforementioned mass, it is absolutely not to be fear of any static perturbation to the dam with the occurrence of the landslide, and therefore only the effects of the wave rise in the lake and in the overflow on the dam crest as a consequence of the fall are to be considered.
INSTITUTE OF HYDRAULICS AND HYDRAULIC CONSTRUCTIONS OF THE UNIVERSITY OF PADUA MODEL CENTER "E. SCIMEMI"
- EXAMINATION ON THE HYDRAULIC MODEL OF THE EFFECTS OF A POSSIBLE LANDSLIDE IN THE VAJONT LAKE TANK
- [...] The forecasts on the modalities of the landslide event are very uncertain from a geological point of view. Partial falls of limited extent occurred in the last months of 1960 in the lower part of the moving bank in conjunction with the initial, and still partial, filling of the reservoir. The landslide formation extends over a total front of 1.8 kilometres (0.97 nmi; 1.1 mi), from an altitude of 600 metres (2,000 ft) to an altitude of 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) asl (maximum height of the reservoir lake-reservoir 722.50 metres (2,370.4 ft) a.s.l.). The geological examination leads to the recognition of a presumable conchoidal flow surface, on which the landslide mass, consisting mainly of incoherent material and groundwater debris, reaches a thickness of 200 metres (660 ft) in the central part (astride the shaft of the Massalezza stream). The slope of the slope is steeper in the lower part overlooking the lake; a collapse of this part would probably have been followed by the steepening of the upper mass. It is to be considered that any descent of the landslide is unlikely to occur simultaneously on the entire front; on the other hand, the hypothesis that one or the other of the two areas located upstream or downstream of the Massalezza stream will descend first, and that this steep slope will be followed, at a more or less short interval, by that of the remaining area. [...]
- [...] These data seem sufficiently indicative of the extent that the wave phenomenon can present even in the most unfavorable forecasts of the fall of the landslide. It should be noted that the rise found near the dam is always higher than that which occurs in the more distant areas along the shores of the lake. Moving on to consider the effects of the landslide that occurs in the lake that is not completely encased, we have from the evidence that already with the reservoir brought to an altitude of 700 m s.l.m. the most unfavorable event, namely the fall of the valley area in 1 min. following a previous fall in the upstream area, it barely causes, with a 27 metres (89 ft) rise. Near the dam (and a maximum of 31 metres (102 ft) at 430 metres (1,410 ft) from it) an overflow just over 2,000 cubic metres (71,000 cu ft) / s. Starting from the reservoir altitude 670 metres (2,200 ft) a.s.l. even with the fastest landslide, the rise is very limited and well below the overflow ridge.
- Therefore, it seems to be possible to conclude that, starting from the reservoir to the maximum flooded, the descent of the expected landslide mass only in catastrophic conditions, i.e. occurring in the exceptionally short time of 1-1.30 minutes, could produce an overflow point of the order of 30,000 cubic metres (1,100,000 cu ft) / s, and a wave rise of 27.5 metres (90 ft). As soon as this time is doubled, the phenomenon is attenuated below 14,000 cubic metres (490,000 cu ft) / s of overflow and 14 metres (46 ft) of elevation.
- By decreasing the altitude of the initial reservoir, these overflow and overflow effects are rapidly reduced, and already the altitude of 700 metres (2,300 ft) a.s.l. can be considered absolutely certain with regard to even the most foreseeable catastrophic landslide event. [...]
:[...] It will in any case be opportune, in the foreseen continuation of the research, to examine on the suitably prolonged model the effects in the Vajont bed and at the confluence in the Piave of the passage of flood waves of an entity equal to that indicated above for possible dam. In this way there will be more certain indications on the possibility of allowing even greater reservoirs in the lake-reservoir, without danger of damage downstream of the dam in the event of a landslide [...]
- Padua 3 July 1962
- THE RESEARCH DIRECTOR
- (Prof. Ing. Augusto Ghetti)
Landslide and wave
|Native name||Italian: Disastro del Vajont|
|Date||October 9, 1963|
|Cause||Underestimated speed and mass of landslide of Monte Toc|
|1,900-2,500 fatalities (estimated)|
|Property damage||500,000,000,000 Lira (1963)|
|Charges||Manslaughter and causing the disaster|
On 9 October 1963, engineers saw trees falling and rocks rolling down into the lake where the predicted landslide would take place. Before this, the alarming rate of movement of the landslide had not slowed as a result of lowering the water, although the water had been lowered to what SADE believed was a safe level to contain the displacement wave should a catastrophic landslide occur. With a major landslide now imminent, engineers gathered on top of the dam that evening to witness the tsunami.
At 10:39 p.m., a massive 2 km (1.1 nmi; 1.2 mi) long landslide, with around 260 million m3 (9,200 million cu ft) of forest, earth, and rock, fell from the southern flank of Monte Toc into the lake below at up to 110 kilometres per hour (31 m/s; 59 kn; 68 mph) (another source gives 25 metres per second (90 km/h; 49 kn; 56 mph)), generating a seismic shock. In 20 seconds it reached the water level; by 45 seconds the landslide (now at rest) had completely filled the Vajont reservoir. The impact displaced 115 million m3 (4,100 million cu ft) of water in approximately 25 seconds, 50 million cubic metres (1,800×106 cu ft) of which overtopped the dam in a 1⁄4-kilometre high (250 m; 820 ft) wave.
The impact with the water generated three waves. One went upwards, reached the houses of Casso, fell back onto the landslide and went to dig the basin of the pond of Massalezza. Another headed toward the shores of the lake and, through a washout action of the same, destroyed some localities in the municipality of Erto e Casso. The third (containing about 50 million cubic metres (1,800×106 cu ft) of water) climbed over the edge of the dam, which remained intact except for the ring road that led to the left side of the Vajont, and fell into the narrow valley below.
The approximately 50 million cubic metres (1,800×106 cu ft) of water that managed to climb over the work reached the stony shore of the Piave valley and swept up substantial debris, which poured into the southern sector of Longarone and destroyed the town except for the town hall, the houses north of it and other neighboring towns. The death toll was about 2,000 people (official data speaks of 1,917 victims, but it is not possible to determine with certainty the number).
The firefighters who departed from Belluno, after receiving reports about the raising of the level of the Piave, could not reach the location, since from a certain point onwards the road, coming from the valley, had been completely ripped off. Longarone was reached by firefighters who departed Pieve di Cadore, who were the first to realize what had happened and were able to communicate it. At 5:30 a.m. on 10 October 1963, the first soldiers of the Italian Army arrived to bring relief and recover the dead. Among the soldiers involved there were above all Alpini, some of which belonged to the combat engineers, who dug by hand to seek the bodies of the missing. They also found safes of the banks of the country, no longer able to be opened with normal keys as they were damaged. The Firefighters from 46 Provincial Commands also participated in the rescue, with 850 men, including divers, land and helicopter teams and many vehicles and equipment. The Nucleo Sommozzatori of Genoa, with 8 personnel, was used in the basin in front of the Busche Dam, for dredging to search for bodies and drums of toxic substances (61 cyanide drums), with subsequent patrol by immersion and final removal of sludge when the basin was dry. Of the approximately 2,000 fatalities, only 1,500 bodies have been summarily recovered and recomposed, half of which are impossible to recognize.
The flooding in the Piave Valley from the wave destroyed the villages of Longarone, Pirago, Rivalta, Villanova and Faè, killing approximately 2,000 people and turning the land below the dam into a flat plain of mud with an impact crater 60 metres (200 ft) deep and 80 metres (260 ft) wide. Many small villages near the landslide along the lakefront suffered damage from a giant displacement wave. Villages in the territory of Erto e Casso and the village of Codissago, near Castellavazzo, were largely wrecked.
Estimates of the dead range from 1,900 to 2,500 people, and approximately 350 families lost all members. Most of the survivors had lost relatives and friends along with their homes and belongings.
The dam was largely undamaged. The top 1 metre (3.3 ft) or so of masonry was washed away, but the basic structure remained intact and exists today.
Causes and responsibility
Immediately after the disaster, the government (which owned the dam), politicians and public authorities insisted on attributing the tragedy to an unexpected and unavoidable natural event.
The debate in the newspapers was heavily influenced by politics. The paper l'Unità, the mouthpiece of the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), was the first to denounce the actions of the management and government, as it had previously carried a number of articles by Tina Merlin addressing the behaviour of the SADE management in the Vajont project and elsewhere. Indro Montanelli, then the most influential Italian journalist and a vocal anti-communist, attacked l'Unità and denied any human responsibility; l'Unità and the PCI were dubbed "jackals, speculating on pain and on the dead" in many articles by La Domenica del Corriere and a national campaign poster paid for by the Christian Democracy, the party of prime minister Giovanni Leone. They attributed the catastrophe only to natural causes and God's will.
The campaign accused the PCI of sending agitprops into the refugee communities, as relief personnel; most of them were partisans from Emilia Romagna who fought on Mount Toc in the Second World War and often had friends in the stricken area.
The Christian Democracy accused the Communist Party of "political profiteering" from the tragedy. Leone promised to bring justice to the people killed in the disaster. A few months after he lost the premiership, he became the head of SADE's team of lawyers, who significantly reduced the amount of compensation for the survivors and ruled out payment for at least 600 victims.
Apart from journalistic attacks and the attempted cover-up from news sources aligned with the government, there had been proven flaws in the geological assessments, and disregard of warnings about the likelihood of a disaster by SADE, ENEL and the government.
The trial was moved to L'Aquila, in Abruzzo, by the judges who heard the preliminary trial, thus preventing public participation, and resulted in lenient sentencing for a handful of the SADE and ENEL engineers. One SADE engineer (Mario Pancini) committed suicide in 1968. The government never sued SADE for damage compensation.
Subsequent engineering analysis has focused on the cause of the landslide, and there is ongoing debate about the contribution of rainfall, dam level changes and earthquakes as triggers of the landslide, as well as differing views about whether it was an old landslide that slipped further or a completely new one.
There were a number of problems with the choice of site for the dam and reservoir: the canyon was steep sided, the river had undercut its banks, and the limestone and claystone rocks that made up the walls of the canyon were inter-bedded with the slippery clay-like Lias and Dogger Jurassic-period horizons and the Cretaceous-period Malm horizon, all of which were inclined towards the axis of the canyon. In addition, the limestone layers contained many solution caverns that became only more saturated because of rains in September.
Prior to the landslide that caused the overtopping flood, the downhill creep of the regolith had been 1.01 centimetres (0.40 in) per week. In September, this creep reached 25.4 centimetres (10 in) per day until finally, the day before the landslide, the creep was measured at 1 metre (3.3 ft).
Most of the survivors were moved into a newly built village, Vajont, 50 km (31 mi) south-east on the Tagliamento River plain. Those who insisted on returning to their mountain life in Erto e Casso were strongly discouraged. Longarone and other villages in the Piave Valley were rebuilt with modern houses and farms.
The government used the disaster to promote the industrialization of the north-east of Italy. Survivors were entitled to 'business start-up' loans, public subsidies and ten years tax exemption, all of which they could 'sell on' to major companies from the Venice region. These concessions were then converted into millions of lira for industrial plants elsewhere. Among the corporations were Zanussi (now owned by Electrolux), Ceramica Dolomite (now owned by American Standard), Confezioni SanRemo, and SAVIC (now owned by Italcementi).
Compensation measures did not clearly differentiate between victims and people who lived nearby; thus much of the compensation went to people who had suffered little damage, creating a negative public image.
A pumping station was installed in the dam basin to keep the lake at a constant level, and the bypass gallery was lengthened beyond the dam to let the water flow down to the Piave Valley. The dam wall is still in place and maintained, but there are no plans to exploit it. The dry basin, filled with landslip, has been open to visitors since 2002.
The dam today and memorials
In recent years there has been a revival of interest both by researchers with specialist interest, and sightseers. The dam, now owned by ENEL, was partially opened to the public in 2002 with guided tours and access to the walkway along the top and other locations. In September 2006 an annual non-competitive track event, called "Paths of Remembrance", was inaugurated, which allows participants to access some locations inside the mountain.
On 12 February 2008, in launching the International Year of Planet Earth, UNESCO cited the Vajont Dam tragedy as one of five "cautionary tales" caused by "the failure of engineers and geologists".
For 2013, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster, the region of Venice set aside one million euros for safety works and recovery of tunnels inside the mountain which were part of the Colomber Road (the old national road 251).
In the media
After the initial worldwide reporting, the tragedy became regarded as part of the price of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s.
In 2001, a docudrama about the disaster was released. A joint production of Italian and French companies, it was titled Vajont—La diga del disonore ("Vajont—The Dam of Dishonour") in Italy, and La Folie des hommes ("The Madness of Men") in France. It stars Michel Serrault and Daniel Auteuil.
- List of natural disasters by death toll
- List of dams and reservoirs
- Malpasset Dam
- St. Francis Dam
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on YouTube of 3D simulation of the wave generated by the Vajont rockslide.
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