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The landslide in Gondo

Twenty years ago, torrential rain in the Simplon region of the Valais caused a devastating landslide in the tiny border village of Gondo. Thirteen people lost their lives and several houses were swept away by the mudslide.

19.10.2020 | Library Am Guisanplatz, Mathias Kobel

The image shows the village of Gondo in the Valais, large parts of which were destroyed by a landslide. (Image: Vereinigung Kantonaler Feuerversicherungen, Kommission für Elementarschadenverhütung)
The landslide in Gondo destroyed a third of the village. Thirteen people lost their lives. (Image: Vereinigung Kantonaler Feuerversicherungen, Kommission für Elementarschadenverhütung)

In autumn 2000, a massive landslide of rubble and debris destroyed one third of the mountain village of Gondo. Thirteen people were killed and ten buildings destroyed, including the western part of a 17th century stone tower, the Stockalperturm.

Persistent rainfall in Ticino and the Valais at the beginning of October 2000 caused Lake Maggiore and several rivers in the Valais to flood. In the region around Gondo, rainfall of 430 litres per square metre was measured between 12 and 14 October.

Gondo lies in an exposed area at the foot of the Ruden-Tschuggen cliff. The Diveria river flows through the Gondo gorge, where it is joined by its tributary, the Grosses Wasser river.

In the morning of 14 October 2000, the fire brigade responded to the Diveria’s unusually high water levels by sounding the alarm and evacuating the forty inhabitants whose homes were at risk of flooding. They were taken to safety at a civil defence facility. Meanwhile, muddy water was gushing down the steep slope above Gondo, straight into the village. A firefighter identified its source: the water was coming from the protective dam right above the small town.

Because of the heavy rainfall in the area, a wall of water had formed behind the rock face above the village. As the water flowed downhill, it gradually began to saturate the ground. The water-soaked earth eventually came loose and began to move. Under the debris’ enormous pressure, the artificial protective wall that had been fixed above the village – primarily to protect it from falling rocks – gave way. Within seconds, the resulting mudslide had swept away the concrete wall, which weighed several tons.

“Get us out of here!”

The roads in the lower part of the village were covered in debris – making escape routes impassable. The local radio station Radio Rottu desperately pleaded for help. Seventy-eight people managed to flee from Gondo to the village of Simplon. The forty people who remained trapped in Gondo were rescued by helicopter.

Difficult rescue and clean-up work

Immediately after the mudslide, mountain rescuers, special units and military recruits began their rescue and clean-up operations under the most adverse conditions. The work took several weeks to complete. In addition to the loss of thirteen lives, the total damage caused by the disaster in Gondo amounted to over CHF 30 million. The clean-up work was helped by a successful donation campaign run by the non-profit organisation Swiss Solidarity. Around CHF 70 million were raised for the people affected by the storm’s devastation, and the village of Gondo received CHF 15 million to rebuild.

Before the village centre’s rebuilding and the renovation of the Stockalperturm could begin, Gondo first needed to be secured against future damage. This was achieved with the installation of new safety nets and by building a natural protective dam at the foot of the cliff, with a 3.5 metre-wide drainage system designed to divert water to the left and right, away from the village.

The disaster-struck village in the Swiss media

The small border town of Gondo in the Valais received a great deal of media attention because of this natural disaster. Many Swiss people expressed their solidarity with the people of Gondo.

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