482 - Dam Peculiar: Switzerland Slicing Into Italy

Borders are to maps what icing is to cakes. Tracing their course between countries and across continents is a source of great enjoyment for the cartophile, as is contemplating their history and function.

This contemplating is usually conducted while consulting maps of a relatively large scale, allowing for a good overview of the countries they separate. But sometimes the joy is in the detail. Consider the Swiss-Italian border, remarkable enough in its entirety. As it zigzags across the valleys and mountaintops of the Alps, three Italian protrusions northward are matched by three territorial thrusts south by the Swiss. Zooming in - as Google Maps now so handily allows - reveals two intriguing anomalies.

Fifteen miles northwest of Como, the Italian city adjacent to Switzerland’s southernmost point, is the enclave of Campione d’Italia, a speck of Italian territory surrounded by Switzerland on the shores of Lake Lugano. This blog has discussed other enclaves before (1), but not Campione d’Italia, as I have yet to find a map of sufficient appeal (2).

Following the Italo-Swiss border to the northeast, we find a second anomaly immediately after it bends south again. Whereas Campione is a well-known example of an easily demarcated category of border anomalies, this one intriguingly defies classificiation (3), and, perhaps as a consequence, has remained largely unreported.

Just west of the Swiss town of Avers, the border (now dividing Italy to the west from Switzerland to the east), suddenly juts out into what appears to be a perfectly rectangular box, exactly 1 km long and 500 m wide (3,300 by 1,700 ft). Odd as this is in itself, its geophysical context is positively intriguing. The box is situated at the northern end of the Lago di Lei, a meridionally oriented lake at an altitude of about 2,000 m (6,500 ft), about 7.7 km (4.8 mi.) long and 133 m (435 ft) deep. It runs parallel to the border just to its east.

Lago di Lei is an artificial lake, created by the hydroelectric dam at its north end. It is precisely this dam that is enclosed by the anomalous box. So we have an Italian reservoir controlled by a Swiss dam. Why? And who gets the electricity? There is very little information to be found on the Valle di Lei, even less on the construction of the Lago and almost nothing on the border anomaly itself.

Sources say the dam was constructed on Italian soil, then transferred to Switzerland in a territorial exchange in 1962-’63. It is now operated by Kraftwerke Hinterrhein (KHR) AG, a Swiss power company and produces 307 kWh per year, one would assume for the Swiss market. KHR’s website has some historical and technical background:

“Even though it is on Italian soil, the alpine valley Valle di Lei [53 km2 (33 mi.2)] is part of the catchment area of the Rhine (4).”

“The dam wall is 138 m (453 ft) high, has a length of 635 m (2,083 ft) at its top and contains 840,000 m3 (2,756,000 ft3) of concrete. The reservoir capacity is 229 times this volume, at 197 million m3 (646 ft3).”

“The dam is a masterpiece of Italian engineering, construction and labour. As the valley was inaccessible, two cable lifts were constructed over a distance of 15 km (9.3 mi.), one for the workforce (numbering app. 1,500), the other for their material.”

“Works started in summer of 1957, the reservoir was filled for the first time in the autumn of 1962.”

The text fails to explain why, after all this effort, the Italian government would sign over the dam to Switzerland (or how much territory they got in return). In any case, although the concrete of the Lei dam was reinforced for military purposes, in the last few centuries,  the issues of alpine border demarcation have tended to be few, and peacefully resolved. The last one that springs to mind is that of Oetzi, the so-called ‘snowman’. The 5,000-year-old frozen remains of this prehistorical hunter were found a few feet away from the Austrian-Italian border. After some wrangling between both countries, the ownership was granted to Italy; Oetzi now rests in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano/Bozen in Italy.


(1) An enclave is a territory (or part of one) completely surrounded by another territory. Usually (but not always) an enclave is also an exclave (i.e. a part of a territory not connected to its ‘mainland’), so both terms are often used interchangeably. More on enclaves/exclaves:

* Exclaves and Enclaves in Eastern Cyprus (#33)

* The Enclaves and Counter-Enclaves of Baarle (#52)

* Madha and Nahwa (#60)

* Exclaves of West Berlin (1): Erlengrund and Fichtewiese (#99) 

* Exclaves of West Berlin (2): Laßzinswiesen (#102)

* Cooch Behar, the Mother of All Enclave Complexes (#110) 

* Exclaves of West Berlin (3): the Böttcherberg Troika (#114)

* Exclaves of West Berlin (4): Steinstücken and Wüste Mark (#151)

* The Kentucky Bend; or Bubbleland, Not Far From Monkey's Eyebrow (#178)

* Germany Surrounded By Switzerland (#253) 

* The ‘claves of Liechtenstein (#322) 

* A Nameless Intra-Irish Pene-Enclave (#365)

(2) The ‘strangeness’ of any map depends on several factors. The Campione enclave being a relatively familiar feature, a map would need to be somewhat special - but I have yet to come across a cartographic representation of Campione with that extra bit of je ne sais quoi. But as this second anomaly is both obscure and bizarre, a screen grab off Google Maps will do the trick. However, if anyone is able to supply a better map of this particular geopolitical oddity, please drop me a line.

(3) In which it is quite similar to the intra-Irish pene-enclave listed in footnote (1).

(4) the catchment area of the Lago di Lei is one of few areas in Italy where the waters do not drain into the Mediterranean. As they flow into the Rhine, they end in the North Sea.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.