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Environment and History

Charting the Flow: Water Science and State Hydrography in the Po Watershed, 1872-1917

Giacomo Parrinello

Environment and History 23 (2017): 65-96. doi: 10.3197/096734017X14809635325638

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Environmental history literature has acknowledged the role of hydrological knowledge in remaking rivers and water systems. The production of such knowledge, however, has thus far remained in the shadows, along with the human–environment interplay that underpins it. This paper brings these aspects into focus by combining the perspective, methods and questions of environmental history with insights from the history and geography of science. It analyses in particular the environmental history of Po River hydrography, from mid-nineteenth century experiments to the inception of a state hydrological service for the Po River basin after World War I. The paper argues that environmental forces and features of the Po watershed shaped the scientific enterprise of hydrological knowledge production, by stimulating its undertaking and influencing its outcome. From initial experimental measurements of discharge to responding to pressing concerns about flood protection, hydrography evolved into constant basin-wide monitoring to overcome the river system’s resistance to prediction. The versatile hydrological knowledge produced via watershed monitoring would prove the key to all kinds of water uses and management projects, making hydrography a crucial articulation of state administrative rule over water resource development in the Po Valley. This paper, therefore, contributes to an environmental history of modern water science and the state, while writing an important chapter on the environmental history of the Po River basin. Furthermore, it highlights the value of exploring the environmental dimensions of scientific knowledge production as a way to better grasp its implications for environmental change and governance.

KEYWORDS: Water, river history, river measurement, hydrography, hydrology, environmental knowledge, water science, floods, water engineering

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