HA 006: Metastasis

Pollution in the Sarno River

Images & Story by Thomas Francia (Instagram | Website)


The Sarno River begins in the Picentini Mountains, flows through Scafati and Pompeii and then out into the Gulf of Naples. While the river itself is only 25km long, its basin is around 500 square kilometres and it’s in that area that almost one million people live.

In the past, the river was fundamental for the growth of cities like Pompeii, giving them a waterway to aid irrigation, support trade and provide sustenance. This prominence in daily life led to the river being personified and at times even being considered a deity. Today, however, deities are less popular and reverence for the river has been replaced by new terms of reference for it; one of the most polluted rivers in the world.


Industrial wastewater has been one of the key drivers of this situation, coming from the hundreds of tanneries operating in the Sarno basin. Along the Solofrana river, one of the main tributaries of the Sarno, wastewater from the process of chrome tanning, which uses chromium salts to stabilise raw animal hides forming leather, has been allowed to run off into the Sarno rather than being treated. Beyond just the raw chemicals in the wastewater, derivatives of chromium salts such as the highly toxic hexavalent chromium, noticeable for the red tint it gives to water, have become prevalent in the Sarno basin with the Solofrana river having been found to contain up to 900 times the normal levels of hexavalent chromium in some places.

A civil drain empties into the river. While these are often dry outside heavy rains, they also function as the drains for wastewater. Solofra, April 2019.
Solofra, considered by some the centre of Italy’s tanning industry, hosts many sources of the Sarno’s pollution. Much of the wastewater is discharged directly into the river or into civil treatment plants that are not equipped to deal with heavy chemicals. Solofra, April 2019.
Solofra’s civil water treatment plant strains to deal with industrial wastewater, the red tint of hexavalent chromium often appearing obvious. Solofra, April 2019.

Solid waste from agriculture and industry has also found its way into the Sarno and its tributaries, blocking the natural flow of the river and contributing to increased flooding in the area. When the waterways flood, they not only share their contaminated waters with other environments but they harm the surrounding cities and fields, further polluting themselves and picking up other pieces of solid waste on their retreat.

Heaps of solid waste in the San Tommaso Canal. Much of this waste comes from agriculture which also releases various pesticides and chemicals into the river. Scafati, November 2018.
Luigi has lived his whole life near the San Tommaso canal, one of the Sarno’s many tributaries. He’s seen the impact of the floods and the chemicals all too closely. Salerno, November 2018.
The canals that flow through the cities and towns along the Sarno transport the waste, both solid and chemical, into highly populated areas. When they flood, that same waste is scattered across the streets. Scafati, November 2018
Picking mushrooms. The Scafati market, one of the biggest in Italy, has suffered several crises over the past years with the supplies being damaged by flooding. Sarno, November 2018.

Much of the pollution in the Sarno runs into the Gulf of Naples, the currents of which often then repel the waste back to the coastline between the Gulf of Naples and the famous Amalfi coast.

Mount Vesuvius in the background, waste in the foreground. Much of the coastline in the area endures waste strewn over it, but the impacts of the pollutants go beyond what you can see.Torre Annunziata, November 2018.

While attempts have been made to clean up the Sarno and the rivers that flow into it, they’re yet to be successful. People continue to live with this polluted waterway impacting their health and the environment around them. However, some of those in the area have decided to fight this seemingly insurmountable and irreversible problem by raising awareness through environmental activism and taking small steps to clean the area up.