Environmental lapses blamed for Italian tragedy

Lack of control over tree felling, landfills, building, blamed for disastrous mudslide

Poor government control over building activities, illegal waste dumping and deforestation are being blamed for a disastrous mudslide in southern Italy last week, which could claim up to 200 lives and has left thousands homeless.

As Italians deal with the slide's consequences, geological experts, environmentalists, local residents and some government officials have described it as a "tragedy foretold" which could have been averted.

Heavy rain early last week led to tonnes of mud sliding down hillsides around the towns of Sarno, Bracigliano and Siano. Located less than 10 miles from one of Italy's best known tourist destinations, the Amalfi coast, the area is in contrast known for its pollution - the river Sarno is regarded as the most contaminated in Italy.

Intense, often unauthorised, building activity, illegal landfilling of waste and depletion of the hillside's natural defences through tree felling and forest fires are all thought to have contributed to hydrological instability in the area. Environmental group Legambiente earlier this year singled out the Campania region where Sarno is located as a hotspot for organised environmental crime including building and waste dumping (ENDS Daily 23 March).

According to Italy's Green party, both local and central government share responsibility for the poor management of house building and other activities in the area. It said: "This tragedy shows once again that the Italian system of land protection from hydrogeological risks, run by the ministry of public works and the regional authorities, has not been able to safeguard our territory from landslide and inundation."

Environment minister Edo Ronchi, a Green party member, has pressed for land protection to be taken away from the public works ministry and placed under his control. But Gianni Mattioli, junior minister for public works, also a Green party member, last week deflected some of the blame for events on to Italy's parliament, which he said had failed to pass a law on the evaluation of hydrological risk, drafted by his ministry over a year ago.

Mr Mattioli has argued that the volcanic rock in the hills around Sarno meant that the region was inherently prone to such incidents. His proposed law would have given power to local authorities to force people to move out of such high risk areas.

Last week's mudslide is not the first such disaster is not the first to hit Italy. In 1963, around 1,800 people died in the north when the Vajont dam collapsed and over 600 people have died since then in similar incidents.

Follow Up:
Italian public works ministry, tel: +39 6 44121; Green Party, tel: +39 6 68 80 28 79; environment ministry, tel: +39 6 70361.

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