Italy’s earthquake-hit towns are bidding for Unesco status

Italy will be putting forward two bids for Unesco World Heritage status from the central Italian region devastated by recent earthquakes, the national Unesco committee said on Monday.

Italy's earthquake-hit towns are bidding for Unesco status
File photo of the prized black truffles: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP

In the running for the prestigious recognition are the 'truffle culture' of Norcia, Umbria, which was one of the worst hit towns in last year's quakes, and a religious festival from l'Aquila, a town still recovering from a deadly tremblor in 2009.

Before the earthquake, Norcia was a town little known outside Italy, except among in-the-know foodies, who celebrated it for its ham and truffles as well as the picturesque scenery.

The regional councillor for Culture and Tourism, Antonella Parigi, said Monday's announcement was “great news for one of the excellent products of our territory”.

Black truffles thrive in Norcia's hills and warm climate, and the 'black diamonds' are celebrated in the town's annual fair, Nero Norcia. 

Comprising markets, tastings and other events revolving around the truffles and other local culinary produce, the fair dates back more than 60 years. Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni attended the 2017 edition, which went ahead despite ongoing recovery efforts in the town.

According to figures from agricultural organization Coldiretti, the region's truffle industry is worth half a billion euros annually.

However, the series of earthquakes in 2016 left the town's agricultural sector suffering from huge losses of revenue and livestock.

Italy's Unesco committee unanimously voted in favour of submitting the bid from Norcia, along with one from nearby l'Aquila.

L'Aquila is seeking Unesco recognition for its Perdonanza Celestiniana festival; a historic tradition which commemorates Pope Celestine V granting an indulgence to pilgrims visiting the Santa Maria di Collemaggio church on the anniversary of his papal coronation. 

The pope's body is still kept at the basilica, with some saying the fact his remains were undamaged by the quake was a 'miracle'.

The two bids have been submitted to the Unesco committee in Paris, where they will be reviewed by the end of 2018, with a decision expected the following year.

Italy already boasts more Unesco heritage sites than any other country, with 51 to its name – a number so high that it didn't bother to bid for any more last year, to give other countries a chance to catch up.

READ ALSO: Five Italian Unesco sites you won't have heard of

Five Italian Unesco sites you won't have heard of
Photo: Pit56/Flickr

Its heritage sites range from entire cities such as Florence and Venice, to cathedrals, castles and ancient ruins.

In 2016, Italy announced it had prepared a dossier to get Neapolitan pizza added to Unesco's Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and earlier this year, it announced a bid to get Unesco status for its Prosecco hills, where the famous drink is made.

READ ALSO: Why Italy wants Unesco status for its Prosecco hills

Why Italy wants Unesco heritage status for its Prosecco hills
hoto: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP

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MAP: Which parts of Italy have the highest risk of earthquakes?

Italy is known for being prone to earthquakes, but some areas of the country are at higher risk than others.

MAP: Which parts of Italy have the highest risk of earthquakes?

A 5.7-magnitude earthquake rocked Italy’s central Marche region on Wednesday and, though no serious damage to people or buildings was reported, it reminded residents that quakes are an inescapable part of life in Italy. 

In fact Italy has been hit by more than 30,000 medium to strong earthquakes (i.e. any event greater than grade IV on the Mercalli scale) over the past 2,500 years, and as many as seven earthquakes with a magnitude of 6.5 or more in the 20th century alone. 

READ ALSO: Italy’s Marche region rocked by strong 5.7 earthquake off Adriatic coast

Due to its peculiar geological position – the boot lies right where the African tectonic plate converges with the Eurasian plate – Italy’s territory is “seismic in its entirety”, according to the country’s Civil Protection Department.

But some parts of the country are at a greater risk of experiencing earthquakes than others.

Italy’s National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) estimates that the “strongest earthquakes […] are expected in Calabria, south-eastern Sicily, Friuli Venezia-Giulia and along the central and southern Apennines”. 

However there’s also significant risk in Puglia’s Salento peninsula, the Tyrrhenian coast of both Tuscany and Lazio, the Po Plain and the Alpine range, the institute states.

As for low-risk areas, Sardinia is the Italian region with the lowest seismic hazard.

Seismic risk across Italy

Variations in seismic risk levels across Italy. Photo by National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV).

The map above shows the variation in risk levels across Italy. Lower-risk areas are shown in light blue, green or yellow. Areas with a greater seismic hazard are orange, red or purple.

‘Seismic hazard’ (pericolosità sismica) is the main parameter used by authorities to gauge the risk of earthquakes in a certain area. This looks at the frequency and power of the quakes that hit a specific area over a set period of time. 

Essentially, the more frequent and the more powerful seismic events are, the greater the seismic hazard in the area.

It’s worth noting that the term ‘seismic hazard’ is not equivalent to what is commonly referred to as ‘seismic risk’, which is an overall assessment that takes several parameters into account, only one of them being seismic hazard (more on this below).

Other parameters

While seismic hazard is the most commonly used parameter when it comes to assessing the risk of earthquakes in a certain area, authorities take other factors into account. 

Italy’s Civil Protection Department also looks at an area’s ‘vulnerability’ (vulnerabilità), i.e. the propensity of the area’s buildings to be severely damaged by a quake, and ‘exposure’ (esposizione), meaning the total number of people and assets that would be endangered by a seismic event in the area in question.

A statue destroyed by an earthquake in Pennisi, Sicily.

Italy has high seismic vulnerability, meaning that its infrastructure is likely to be severely damaged in the event of an earthquake. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

According to the Civil Protection Department, Italy doesn’t just have a “medium-high seismic hazard” but also “high vulnerability” due to the fragility of its infrastructure and “very high exposure” on account of the country’s population density and the many historical and artistic assets found across the territory.   

When combined, these three factors (seismic hazard, vulnerability, exposure) allow for a comprehensive assessment of a country’s overall seismic risk.

In Italy’s case, the peninsula has “a high seismic risk”, with quakes likely to result in loss of human life and significant damage to local infrastructure. 

Without accounting for damage to historical and artistic assets, the economic cost of damage caused by seismic events over the last 40 years in Italy is estimated at around 80 billion euros.