CORDIS - EU research results

River Basin and Water Circulation in the Transition to an Urban-Industrial Society: the Po Drainage Basin, 1860-2000

Final Report Summary - WATER AND TRANSITION (River Basin and Water Circulation in the Transition to an Urban-Industrial Society: the Po Drainage Basin, 1860-2000.)

Project objectives
During the last 150 years, the region crossed by the Po River has undergone a fundamental transition toward industrial modes of production, high-tech urban systems, and new forms of social life. This transformation corresponded to a vertiginous increase in water uses and to massive social and ecological rearrangements of water circulation. This projects aimed to obtain a clear understanding of the changes in water circulation across the river basin and its relationship with the most significant social and economic processes that occurred from 1860 to 2000. This general goal is articulated into four interdependent objectives. 1) To retrace the historical development, overlaps and conflicts of agricultural, industrial and urban uses of Po river basin water; as well as the main actors, projects, and phases of the process. 2) To map the changing geographies of water metabolism and circulation in the Po river basin, in relation to the historical transformation of water uses in the transition to an urban-industrial society. 3) To study the impact of the transformation in water uses and circulation on the river basin hydro-ecosystem, and the consequences of this on various sets of human activities over time. 4) To identify the most relevant characteristics that qualify the transformation in water socio- ecological metabolism in the transition to the urban-industrial society. In addition to these scientific objectives, the project aimed at furthering the researcher’s training in environmental history, historical geography and social ecology, and improve his set of academic skills and qualifications.

Description of the work performed
The project was organized into distinct but partially overlapping work packages. The first one consisted in collecting and studying secondary sources, coeval printed sources and archival materials on water uses and governance in local libraries and the State Central Archives. These materials have been located, classified and analysed in order to obtain information on water legislation and management, including management agencies and particularly significant individuals, and on timing, reasons, and conflicts behind the construction of major water infrastructure across the basin. The second work package aimed at the implementation of a historical GIS of water uses. The researcher has explored archives, libraries and online repositories looking for sources that could offer a comprehensive overview of water uses, including, for example, information on aqueducts and sewages, irrigation canals, drainage works, hydroelectric power plants and reservoirs. After having identified, classified and studied the most important sources - such as surveys, inventories, and maps – the researcher has digitized them in a GIS database. He has thus been able to analyse their spatial relationships via water circulation and their evolution through time. The researcher has worked on the third work package, which focused on the hydrological and ecosystems effects of changes in water circulation and the consequences on human activities. He has collected and analysed sources on river hydrology, including mid-nineteenth century studies and early twentieth century reports from relevant state agencies. He has then analysed sources on ecological transformations produced from the 1960s onward by public agencies and universities. The fourth work package consisted in the synthesis of the results into a comprehensive interpretative and conceptual framework, by means of theoretical effort. To achieve this, the researcher has been reviewed existing work on human-environment interaction with a particular focus on water, including works of environmental history and historical geography as well as environmental studies. On the basis of these theoretical considerations and of the primary research, the researcher has developed an original understanding of the process of historical and environmental change he has reconstructed and analysed.

Description of the main results
The research has reconstructed in time and space the distribution and typology of the main water uses in the watershed during the urban-industrial transition. It has identified the subsequent phases of development of water uses in the transition to an urban industrial society, starting from the construction of big irrigation canals in the mid-nineteenth century and the age of mechanical drainage, to the manipulation of the water cycle for hydroelectric power production and by urban-industrial pollution in the last decades of the twentieth century. The research has identified the drivers and actors of this change, which included transnational capital ventures, local entrepreneurs, and public administration at multiple level. The research has also pointed out the role played by not only political constituencies and economic actors, but also by scientific knowledge in orienting the direction and mode of water circulation change and in regulating conflicts among actors. Science-based understanding of the river system, including discharge, seasonal variability, chemical composition and so forth, was often behind the decision to undertake crucial engineering projects and scientists participated in these decision. This work has also shed light on the reciprocal influence between social and economic transformation and hydrographical and ecological change throughout the transition to the urban-industrial age, showing the centrality of water systems and water uses to the structure of our social and political systems. The work has shown overall that gradually overlapping of processes such as agricultural improvement, flood protection, energy production and urban water supply produced growing interdependencies, and unforeseen effects of water modification on human activities themselves. This interconnection via the hydrological cycle also implies a high dependency of water metabolism on climate change and its effects on Alpine glaciers. These results have been presented at numerous international meetings in environmental history and geography, and selected portions have been accepted for publication, are currently under review or are about to be submitted to major international journals in the field. As foreseen in the project, the overall results will be synthesized in a book to be completed after the end of the project. The project has a multiple online presence. It is present as a publicly accessible Facebook site with regular update on the project status and other relevant news on the project topic at and it also accessible via the website which collects other online dissemination activities. A dedicated website with GIS maps is under construction but already accessible at Among the most prominent results of the project, and in particular of the part concerning the researcher’s training and career development, it has to be mentioned here that also by virtue of the training under the project, the researcher has obtained a tenure track position as assistant professor of environmental history in a prominent European university.

Potential impact and use
This project has provided a comprehensive overview of the transformation of water circulation of the Po river basin, its social causes and its hydrological and ecological consequences, to be published as book monograph. The results contribute to a better understanding of the complex set of problems that confronts all those who wish to develop a more sustainable use of water resources in the valley. This is especially important in the light of climate change, which in the Po watershed takes the form of shrinking glaciers and therefore reduced water supply. Understanding the entanglements and historical interdependencies among different water uses and deciphering the hydro-social system of water circulation could prove crucial to take effective decisions to adjust water uses to a shrinking supply in the Po river basin. Yet the same questions and issues are common to many other parts of the world, where humans have been modifying the air, water, and land on an unprecedented scale, while reshaping themselves and their civilization. Are we capable to deal with the new and overlapping scales of water circulation and the intended and unintended consequences? How can we balance collective well-being and limited water resources? How can we ensure democratic decisions on water resources and a just distribution of burdens and benefits? This project will ultimately provide evidence from one of the most important and dynamic European watersheds to better answer these questions, or at least have a more informed discussion on their meaning and broader implications. The project’s results are therefore of direct interest for policy-makers and citizens in the Po Valley, but also for an international audience of scholars and specialists of water history and management and interaction between climate change and freshwater resources.