By Sara Pavan, at Lester B. Pearson College of the Pacific (1998)


"A stone falls in a glass and the water it contains spills over a tablecloth. That is what happened.
The only difference is that the stone was 200.000 metro cubes big, the glass contained 150.000 millions of water and the tablecloth were over 2000 people who were not able to defend themselves
   Dino Buzzati, in "Il Corriere della sera", 10th October 1963

L'auspicio di Marco Paolini, 9 ottobre 1997

"Non esiste, una canzone per il Vajont. Il vostro silenzio, ... è quella canzone.".
Marco Paolini, 9 ottobre 1997.

See & listen this on Youtube clicking here
Two reference YT channels:
A) vajont2003
B) vajont1963

Dino Buzzati, an amazing Italian writer, used this similitude to describe the dynamics of a huge landslide that fell from Toc Mountain in Erto, Northern Italy, twenty-five years ago. The huge mass of rock it freed fell in an enormous drainage basin, which was sustained by the Vajont dam, the newly constructed biggest dam in the world, pride of Italy. Such movement raised a wave huge and violent enough to destroy completely villages Erto, Casso and Longarone, to kill 2500 people and to undermine their cultures and traditions.

The story of the Vajont dam lasted twenty years: it started in 1943, when the government was absent and the country was experiencing a civil war, and it ended in 1963, bringing death and destruction. It is a story of exploitation, characterized by the "arrogance of excessively strong powers, and the subjection of humanity and science to the quest for money despite anything", as journalist Tina Merlin wrote. It is a holocaust, it is the sacrifice of 2000 people that served the image of a new rich Italy, whose re-birth after twenty years of dictatorship was to be witnessed by the biggest dam in the world.

The landslide of 1963 has not been an unpredictable accident, yet it was the result of the violence perpetrated by men to the geological balance of the mountain. Worth of noticing, it was calculated that if the quantity of rock that naturally moved in a few seconds had been taken away by 100 trucks a day, it would have needed seven centuries to be completely removed. In 1998 justice has not been rendered yet to the Vajont Valley.

Educational institutions, such as schools and public libraries, do not teach about the Vajont tragedy and do not even own books on the subject.

This megaproject starts from the fear that justice will never be rendered to the survivors of the wave and those who fought against the institutions and the personal economic interest hidden under the "public utility" purpose if we do not take up our responsibilities and we forget. Maybe because it is easier to do so, or because nobody cares anymore.

However, when I went to Casso and Erto over the summer, I saw something written on the wall of an old house that had resisted to the wave. It said: Government + Sade = 2500 dead. The people of the Vajont valley did not forget their tragedy. But they are poor are mostly ignorant, which means not listened to. I thought this could be the chance to give them a voice.
Telling this story of "abuse of power, vain research of justice, silence, complicity, mistrust in a republic of fairness", as Tina Merlin said, means to me hope for a better future to construct on the lesson offered by wrong past and the universal principle of justice.



1943: King Vittorio Emanuele the Third escapes the country and a civil war divides Italy after twenty years of dictatorship. In the meantime the SADE - Adriatic society for electricity - gets together thirteen of the thirty-five ministers for "public works" and makes them vote for the construction of the biggest dam in Europe, the Vajont dam, to be built in Northern Italy. Their approval to the project is anti constitutional, as the law establishes that at least the 51% of the ministers need to be in Palazzo Chigi when considering any project. However, in 1948, the first president of the Italian republic, Luigi Einaudi, establishes that such decision is legal (decree 729, 21 march 1948). The construction of the Vajont dam, the biggest in Europe, pride of Italy, is allowed to start.

The peasants of the Vajont valley, who built their villages on landslides fallen during 1600 and 1700, are kept in complete ignorance of the whole Vajont project, despite the fact that it is their fields and their houses that will be sunk in an artificial drainage basin.

1956: A police station is set up in Erto to force all the peasants of the village to sell their fields to the Sade, in the name of a "project of public utility". They will disappear in the drainage basin created by the Vajont dam.

Geologist Giorgio Dal Piaz conducts some testing on the Toc Mountain, to establish whether it is a good place to build a dam on or not. Worth of noticing, the test is done after the whole project has already been approved.

"Toc" means crazy in the dialect of the inhabitants of the Vajont valley: they called it in that way because of its tendency to free huge landslides unexpectedly.
Dal Piaz actually acknowledges that particular geological nature, stating that the results of the tests on the Toc "make his wrists and arteries tremble". However, he requests Semenza, the engineer for the Vajont dam project, to hand him in a "nice report on the geological conditions of Toc Mountain" so that he could sign it. This is a horrible example of the purchase of science by an economic monopoly like the Sade.

January 1957: The Sade starts constructing the dam without having being allowed by the government.

April 1957: A new project is presented in Palazzo Chigi. Accordingly to it, the height of the dam will be increased from 200 Mts. to 266 Mts., thus rising the drainage basin up to 722.50 Mts. above the sea level. It will now contain three times as much water as it was supposed to contain when the Vajont dam was first planned.

15th June 1957: The ministry for "Public Works" approves the new project, despite the fact that the geologic report the Sade uses deals with the dam and not with the drainage basin. Erto will now be on the precipice of the artificial lake.

The inhabitants of the Vajont Valley, that is to say Erto, Casso and their small fractions like San Martino, Pineda, Spesse, Prada, Liron, Col della Risana, Foscai and Valdapont, organize a Committee for the defense of the Valley against the Sade. They ask for a foot-bridge to be built across the artificial lake. The Sade neglects it because "the geological nature of the Toc Mountain does not allow its construction". Notice that they claim it can instead sustain the biggest dam in the world.

1958: The committee for the defense of the valley against the Sade calls up all the representative of the political parties. It attempts to draw everybody's attention towards the hardships caused to them by the construction of the dam. In fact, because of the continuous movements of huge masses of water due to filling the drainage basin, the villages around the valley start featuring fissures everywhere, the animals do not produce anymore as they are afraid of the noises they hear coming from the mountain, and small earthquake shocks.

It seems that only the Communist party is interested in defending the rights of the inhabitants of the Vajont valley. Journalist Tina Merlin publicly denounces the risky possibility of a landslide falling from the Toc mountain on "L'Unità", a left-wing newspaper. Her denouncement is dealt with as a communist attempt to oppose a private company like the Sade, and she ends up in a state court.

Tina Merlin's action, although unsuccessful, has the effect of urging for the nationalization of companies for electricity, like the Sade, so that their monopoly and overpower could finish.

Autumn 1959: The construction of the Vajont dam gets to the end.

22nd October 1959: The committee for final inspection of the dam goes to the Vajont valley, exactly seven days after the Sade obtained financial aid from the government.

The dam and the drainage basin need to get approval before the nationalization of the Sade, so that at the moment of purchase by the Enel (national company for electricity), they would be completely functioning and the Sade would be fully paid back by the Italian state.

1960: The more the level of the water in the artificial lake raises, the more stones and molds fall down the mountain and the more small landslides are pointed out by the seismographs on the dam.

15th October 1960: the drainage basin is filled up to 636,00 Mts. above the sea level.

4th November 1960: A landslide falls from the Toc mountain. A plain worker that the Sade had resolved to leave there overnight in case of danger dies not having been able to call for help and escape on time. It is true there is a landslide then, and it is moving. Nobody can neglect it anymore.

The Sade decides to stop the continuous filling and flaring of the drainage basin and resolves to construct a by-pass. This would be used in case a landslide would split the artificial lake to allow the proper functioning of he system.

28th November 1960: The committee for final inspection of the dam goes back to the Vajont Valley. The decision of stopping the filling and flaring of the artificial lake satisfies them.

The Sade starts thinking on how to react to "hypothetical emergency situations for the Vajont drainage basin". The institute for hydraulics of the University of Padua is contacted. Later, the "Center for hydraulic models of Nove di Vittorio Veneto", which is owned by the Sade, is asked to realize the model of the landslide falling from Toc mountain, to be able to study its consequences.

In the meantime, the Sade is rushing to get the final approval for the system, in order to be fully repaid by the government when it would be nationalized.

10th April 1961: The committee for final approval of the project goes again to the Valley.

By this time, the economical future of Erto and Casso is completely destroyed. The resistance of the peasant has also been smashed down by decrees, testing engineers, police and ministers.

31st October 1961: Carlo Semenza, engineer of the Vajont system, dies.

In the next fifteen days, the seismographs on the dam perceive continuous earthquake shocks. Despite everything the drainage basin continues to be filled, actually on May 3rd 1962 the Sade asks the ministry allowance to rise the edge of the artificial lake up to 700 Mts. above the sea level.

3rd July 1962: Geologist Ghetti presents the Sade with the final report of his studying on the hypothesis of a landslide falling from the Toc mountain. The experiments he conducts are though unreliable as they are based on the assumption the landslide would fall in two times. However, the results are not comforting at all. The Sade does not allow further experiments.

8th July 1962: Engineer Bertolissi, the governmental assistant for the Vajont project, provides the "Genio Civile', that is the authority for the safety of the population, with a worrying report. The Service for dams of the government is called for a "timely check out".

Over the summer the artificial lake is continuously filled and flared in order to test the stability of the Toc Mountain, of the drainage basin and of the subsoil.

June 1962: The Sade gives the start to the construction of a school in Pineda, a minor village under the Toc. It also promises to organize public transportation for all the children of the Valley, as an attempt to hide the huge risk of a landslide.

December 1962: The law for the institution of the national society for electricity is issued. The Enel buys from the Sade "all the goods and juridical reports, including the hydroelectric concession of Vajont and the attached system which has already been built." However, nothing actually changes. Those who worked for the Sade now work for the Enel, and no pressure from any public institution is put onto it.

The Toc Mountain has not fallen yet but it is moving. The ring road, which has been constructed under the mountain, keeps moving. In two years it went out of axes by about half a metro.

January-October 1963: The situation of the Vajont valley worsens dramatically.
Clefts appear everywhere, the mountain produces weird roars, and the water in the artificial lake keeps getting brown all in a sudden. The administrators of the villages, pushed by the protests of the population, write to the Enel, to the ministry of Public Works and to the Genio Civile, demanding their attention over the risk of a landslide falling from the Toc Mountain.

9th October 1963: Much of the population of Erto and Casso evacuates the village bringing as many of their goods as possible. Others prefer not to leave their houses despite the sign of danger hung by the local authorities.
At 22.39 in the night a spooky rumble comes from the Toc Mountain.
Two hundred and sixty millions of metros cubes of rock fall in the artificial lake, rising a wave twenty-five millions of metros cubes high. It violently crushes over Erto and Casso; it surpasses the dam and collides over Longarone. Two thousands people die.


10th October 1963: The few survivors escape the Vajont valley, as there is still a huge risk of falling landslides. They spread all over the region, or relatives host them in Udine, Trieste, Milan or Turin.

11th October 1963: The minister of Interior, Giovanni Leone, goes to Erto. The Enel, that is the National Company for electricity, launches out the false news that "the landslide was not predictable".

15th July 1965: A commission is set up in the Parliament to clarify the responsibilities for the Vajont tragedy. Representatives of all the parties take part in it, although the Democrazia Cristiana, the party in which many politicians from the period of Mussolini's dictatorship had converged, holds the majority. The results of its inquiries establish that "the event could not have been foresighted". However, the members of the Communist party present a report to the Parliament in which the responsibilities of the Sade-Enel and the ministers are clearly demonstrated.

Some survivors attempt to go back to the Valley and restore their community over there, therefore they demand the drainage basin to be emptied to eliminate the danger. The Enel however is interested in maintaining the valley uninhabited to be able to use the drainage basin. The local authorities support the Enel.

By 1965, many peasants are back in their valley and are rebuilding their village. The Enel resolves to cut them off the electricity.

28th December 1966: The construction of a new village in the territory of Maniago gets started. It will host the survivors of the Vajont valley and their families. It is resolved to call it Vajont. As it is an "invented" village, it does not have a proper physiognomy and its inhabitants have now lost their traditions and costumes.

1971: Erto starts to be rebuilt. Almost no financial aid comes from the government. The new houses, the new square and shops make Erto loose its ancient spirit.

Casso is completely abandoned. Only some elderly stay there, as they want to die where they were born.

1982: The trial between the Sade - Enel and the municipality of Erto and Casso comes to an end. The government will have to pay the actual and moral damage to the inhabitants of Erto, Casso and Longarone.

In 1998, the damage has not been quantified yet.
Erto, Casso and Longarone have partially grown back on their ruins but they lost their essence and most of their traditions.

Their economy is completely ruined. In fact, all good fields for agriculture had sunk in the artificial lake and are now covered by the hill that the rock falling from the Toc Mountain formed.

Many typical productions of the Valley went lost, such as the big wooden spoons that women used to cook typical dishes of the region.

In the years subsequent to the tragedy, many survivors died of alcoholism, as they were not able to accept what had happened to them.


Sade's original project (1939-1940) was to utilize the water of rivers Piave and Boite by the obstruction of Piave River, in the village of Pieve di Cadore. This would have led to the creation of an artificial drainage basin which could contain 50 mln. metro cubes of water and could be filled up to 677 metros above the sea level.

The water of river Boite could be dragged to the drainage basin after being whirled in the Sottocastello power station.

After passing by the drainage basin, the water could be used while in downfall at the power station of Macchietto and was then exploited in the power station of SOVERZENE. Over the course of the years, the project was modified, as the Enel wanted "to improve the utilization of the system", and came to include torrents Maè and Vajont. The other main changes from the original plan were:

1. The only power plant used was the one in Soverzene, which got hydroelectric power from the small drainage basin of Val Gallina.

2. The maximum capacity of the basin of Pieve di Cadore was increased up to 64 mln. metro cubes and the maximum filling rate to 683,5 meters above the sea level.

3. Two drainage basins, Valle di Cadore and Vodo, were built on Boite river. Vodo provided energy to the station of Pontesei, in Val Zoldana, whereas the water of Valle was let in the "pressure gallery" of Pieve di Cadore - Val Gallina.

4. The water from torrent Maè was whirled in the station of Gardona and then directed either to Pieve di Cadore-Gallina or to the Vajont itself.

5. A huge dam divided the Vajont valley. It formed an artificial drainage basin to be full over the whole course of the year and thus ready to transfer energy to the Soverzene power plant in periods of drought. Its maximum filling rate was 722,50 metros above the sea level. As such rate was bigger than the Pieve di Cadore Lake' s, all the drainage basins of the system could not simply be linked to each other. Therefore a new system was projected accordingly to which the Vajont drainage basin could be isolated and linked to the rest of the system through interception.

This was the situation of the system on October 9th 1963.

After the tragedy, attempts were made to reutilize the system. In 1981, the system started working again, not including the Vajont artificial lake.


(thanks a LOT, Sara! If you read this, please write me:

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