Tree-felling blamed for fatal Italian mudslide

Anne Hanley
Wednesday 06 May 1998 23:02

ENVIRONMENTALISTS yesterday blamed decades of bad land management for the mudslide disaster which struck the hilly area east of Naples in the southern Italian region of Campania following which at least 37 people were reported dead and 71 more missing. Driving rain had sent torrents of mud from surrounding hills coursing through towns and villages on Monday and Tuesday.

"This disaster was totally predictable," said Alberto Fiorillo, a spokesman for the Legambiente environmental group.

Grubbing up trees and burning off scrub-land to increase pasture or clear areas for unregulated construction has led to massive erosion in the Sarno valley, and throughout the Campania region, Signor Fiorillo said. The Sarno river itself no longer exists, its water has been drawn off by industry and its bed has been built on. There is no longer anywhere for flood waters to escape.

"Italy spends huge amounts of money patching things up after disasters, but hardly any on prevention, and the little that is spent is spent badly," he added. "More often than not, it makes matters worse."

Antonio Rastrelli, the president of the Campania region and special commissioner for hydro-geological issues, defended his record, saying "having the power to intervene is one thing. But it's no good without funding."

Fast-moving streams of lava-like sludge swept through the towns of Sarno, Quindici and surrounding villages, as driving rain caused massive landslides which carried people, houses, cars and trees before them. In Sarno, six people died in the local hospital when mud gushed through the building from one side to the other, drowning them in their beds.

In Quindici, entire streets lay buried, outlying areas were cut off, and roads were destroyed.

Rescue services searched round the clock for survivors. Bulldozers were used to clear roads, as teams of experts and volunteers combed ruins for what they said might be dozens of people still buried under the detritus.

"What I have seen here is a disgrace for a civilised country," said Giorgio Napolitano, the Interior Minister, as he inspected the damage in Quindici, one of the worst-affected towns. "Keeping towns from being drowned in mud is a matter of national pride. There are specific individuals responsible for this disaster."

Close to 2,000 people were left homeless in the flooding which occurred during what the Italian air force's meteorological department described as "persistent but not exceptional" rain.

"The rain may have caused erosion," an air force communique said, "but the true cause of the disaster lies in the territory itself."

Campania holds Italy's worst record for natural disasters, with almost one-third of all Italian floods, landslides and earthquakes over the past 70 years having taken place in this mountainous, poor, mainly agricultural region. The likelihood of further disasters is great, said Signor Legambiente. There is a high risk of landslides and serious flooding in at least 24 percent of the land in the region.

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