Italy declares emergency in landslide region

The Mafia and deforestation led to floods and devastation, writes Anne Hanley

Anne Hanley
Friday 08 May 1998 23:02

ITALY yesterday declared a state of emergency for the Campania region, and earmarked 50 billion lire (pounds 18m) for patching up the worst of the damage done by landslides which killed at least 87 people earlier this week.

The money will go some way towards putting roofs back over the heads of the 2,000-odd people whose homes were destroyed by the massive river of mud and detritus driven by heavy rain down the mountainside into the Sarno valley. It will contribute towards the cost of reopening shops and businesses in the area.

It will not, however, even start to pay for the work necessary to prevent the many other geological disasters waiting to happen in Campania and all over Italy.

"We need 65 trillion lire over the next 10 years to get territory which has been plundered for the last 30 years back into shape," said Green party MP Anna Maria Procacci. "We need it now. The Sarno disaster marks a point of no return."

In a dossier released by the Legambiente environmental watchdog in January 1997, the Sarno valley was singled out as "a high-risk zone for environmental crises".

The river Sarno, the report said, had dwindled to a trickle of noxious froth, the river bed had been cemented over, the clay soil of the surrounding mountains had been rendered dangerously loose by fires and deforestation, and houses had been built up hillsides which had been identified as landslide zones.

"The fact that no steps were taken to remedy this situation," said Ermete Realacci, Legambiente's chairman, "is hardly surprising. This is an area dominated by organised crime. In Quindici, one of the worst-affected villages, town council elections have been called off year after year because no one dares to stand against the official candidates of the Graziano clan."

The Sarno situation is the tip of a vast iceberg, which costs Italy 8 trillion lire a year to patch up as mountainsides collapse, rivers flood, and earthquakes damage buildings. In the Campania region alone, 24 per cent of territory is considered high-risk. In the region's capital, Naples, 60 per cent of the city may collapse into the underlying labyrinth of caves, experts say.

"Though Campania is bad, it's not the only region which is susceptible to this kind of natural disaster," said Mr Realacci, who cited the northern regions of Piedmont, Liguria and Emilia Romagna as other possible crisis points. "And just look at Florence: the city suffered chronic flooding in 1966, but almost nothing has been done. If we had a repetition of that freak rainfall now, Florence would be completely under water. Up-river, money has been spent badly, and the situation has worsened since then."

The problem, environmentalists agree, is not so much of funds or the lack of them, but of lack of a coherent policy to ensure that the country is in a fit state to cope with what nature throws at it.

"Successive governments have sidelined the issue of land management," said Ms Procacci, whose Green party is part of the governing coalition. "For years and years, it has been underestimated, and our leaders have been able to get away with it because the Italian people as a whole seem unable to grasp the fact that their very security depends on looking after the land."

The tragedy in the Sarno valley must, she said, make land zoning and management a priority. "We have a great law in this country which we pushed through parliament in 1989, forcing local councils to draw up comprehensive plans for the protection of their territory, with proper building zones, river flood plains protected, and all the other measures needed to ensure that the land is respected," she said. "The problem is, it has never been implemented. In Sarno, for example, 20 per cent of the houses were built without permission."

The Greens are calling for a one-year plan to deal with the most pressing emergencies plus a long-term project for putting to rights the thousands of mainly man-made environmental problems which have arisen over the past three decades. "If nothing else, the Sarno disaster might wake people up to the dangers," Ms Procacci said.

The task, however, will be a difficult one, and, as Mr Realacci pointed out, it will take a lot of lateral thinking to ensure that Italy's population is safe from natural disasters.

In Quindici, for example, they should have been using part of the funds they had on incentives for people to leave homes which now lie buried under tons of muds, he said. "I dread to think what will happen to the thousands of people living high up the slopes of Vesuvius when that volcano goes off. There's no way they can be evacuated," he added.

It is also, he said, a question of instilling pride. "I look around me and I see the ugliness we have brought to our beautiful country. It's all part of the same process. We need to teach Italians to care about the land they live on."

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