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Experts warn that illegal construction threatens lives of millions of Italians

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Experts warn that illegal construction threatens lives of millions of Italians
Firefighters extract a body from the debris of a collapsed building, after two floors collapsed in Torre Annunziata, a town near near Naples, on July 7, 2017. Photo: Renato Esposito/AFP
15:00 CEST+02:00
As Italy reels from another earthquake, experts warned Wednesday that widespread illegal construction is putting millions across the country at risk of being killed.

The tremor that shook the island of Ischia on Monday, toppling houses and killing two women, has sparked much soul-searching in a country with a weakness for rule-breaking -- particularly when it comes to building or renovating houses.

Geologists insisted that the relatively minor 4.0-magnitude quake should not have killed anyone and the civil protection agency laid the blame on the "many structures built with shoddy and illegal materials" on the island.

Residents there have put in 28,000 requests for amnesties for infringement of building regulations in the last 30 years.

Attempts by the council to tear down illegal constructions have sparked fury, with locals clashing with riot police. The same battle is waged daily across Italy -- predominantly in the poorer south, the playground of Italy's mafias.

The mayor of Licata in Sicily was ousted this month by councillors infuriated by his campaign against illegal housing.

Italy's national statistic institute (ISTAT) warned last year of a "decisive rise in the level of illegality" in construction, involving nearly 20 new buildings in every 100. That number rose to 60 in every 100 in some regions in the south.

The scale "has no equal in other advanced economies," it said. Worse, buildings allegedly restored under strict anti-seismic norms collapsed in quakes last year, including schools.

And while some buildings at risk due to poor-quality materials or unlicensed extensions are subject to demolition orders, only around 10 percent of them are carried out.

Corruption, incompetence

The worst offender is the Calabria region, followed by Sicily and the Basilicata in the instep of boot-shaped Italy. But it is Campania -- encompassing Naples and Ischia island -- which is dubbed the "Russian Roulette of Italy" by experts because of its deadly mix of illegal houses, a high-density population and the active volcano Vesuvius.

There are over 4,500 schools, 259 hospitals and nearly 900,000 buildings in the highest-risk areas of the region.

"For at least the last 20 years the scientific community has been explaining the problem to the institutions, above all pushing for prevention measures," said Stefano Carlino, researcher at the national geographic institute in Naples.

"They are expensive of course, but also fundamental. Unfortunately the issue has not been given the attention it needs," he said.

Geologist Mario Tozzi warns Vesuvius is nothing compared to the activity seen at the nearby volcanic Phlegraean Fields over the last few years, including a rise in the ground-level of 25 centimetres (inches), tremors and ever-hotter gases.

"The Phlegraean Fields is a supervolcano made up of some 30 craters -- gaily occupied today by hippodromes and hospitals -- the eruption of which would spark the permanent exodus of half a million people," he said.

And how to forget Marsili, the undersea volcano south of Naples which is "70 kilometres (43.5 miles) long and 3,000 metres tall (10,000 feet), and just off the Calabrian coast", where an eruption could trigger a tsunami as well as devastate cities and towns.

As Italy marks the anniversary of a 2016 quake in central Italy that killed 299 people, Tozzi insisted it was not nature that buries children alive in rubble but "corruption, political incompetence and our incapability to learn from history".

And sometimes not even a tremor is needed to topple buildings: eight people died in July when an apartment block collapsed near Naples, killing among others the municipal architect in charge of building security checks in the area.

READ MORE: Ischia earthquake should not have been deadly, say country's top geologists 

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