Row over illegal construction in Italy after deadly Ischia landslide

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Row over illegal construction in Italy after deadly Ischia landslide
Damaged cars on the beach of Casamicciola on November 27, 2022, following a landslide on the island of Ischia, southern Italy. Photo by Eliano IMPERATO / AFP

Ischia, the small Italian island devastated by a landslide last weekend, is a victim of geography and weather but also of illegal construction, experts say.


Eleven people died and one woman remains missing on Saturday after a wave of mud and debris swept through the small town of Casamicciola Terme, following heavy rains across the lush island off the coast of Naples.

READ ALSO: Italy declares state of emergency after deadly Ischia landslide

But environmental experts have since insisted that the tragedy was "predictable".

WWF Italia, the environmental organisation, said the landslide had "specific causes and responsibilities".


It blamed the "repeated and irresponsible management of the island's territory which, with the acceleration of the effects of climate change under way, has now become a bomb primed and ready to explode".

"It sounds like hypocrisy to mourn the victims of recent days, when we continue to build where we should not."

Experts say that both illegal and legal construction, combined with deforestation, reduces the ability of the soil to absorb large quantities of water.

READ ALSO: Landslides and earthquakes: Why Ischia - and most of Italy - is at risk

The issue of abusivo buildings erected without permission is a widespread problem across Italy.

The minister for civil protection, Nello Musumeci, acknowledged this week that "the sad and widespread problem of illegal construction" is a subject that "can no longer be avoided".

But Ischia, an island of volcanic origin which suffered a deadly earthquake in 2017, is particularly vulnerable.

Some "49 percent of the territory of Ischia is classified as at a high or very high risk of landslide... with more than 13,000 people living in these areas", Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto said.

According to the latest report from the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA), 93.9 percent of Italian communes are at risk of landslides, flooding or coastal erosion.

"You don't need to be a specialist to understand that illegal buildings cannot be tolerated, because they constitute a risk multiplier that goes far beyond the people that live there," said WWF.

Faced with unauthorised construction, successive Italian governments have often responded with amnesties, although the bureaucratic process is often so long and complicated that it can take years for a decision.

The rescue and clean-up effort in Casamicciola, Ischia, after a deady landslide hit last weekend. (Photo by Eliano IMPERATO / AFP)

In Ischia alone, some 27,000 requests for amnesties have been filed in recent years, according to Italian media reports.

And when the order finally comes to knock down an illegal building, its residents often find ways to avoid it.

In one case, the occupants of a condemned house brought children from across their family into the building, because the presence of minors nullifies the order, retired Naples prosecutor Aldo De Chiara told the La Stampa newspaper.


The prosecutor, who specialised in the fight against illegal construction, said that in other cases, "when the police arrive, they find in the illegal rooms, whether the veranda or the living room, patients on IV drips like in a Swiss clinic".

However, others see illegal construction as a scapegoat.

"When there is a landslide in the north of Italy we talk about climate change, when it is in the south, we talk about illegal construction," said Sergio Piro, who runs three hotels on Ischia, including one in Casamicciola Terme.

"It's true there is illegal construction, but in this case it was a section of the mountain that came off because there had been no preventative work, in particular of drainage canals," the 47-year-old told AFP.

Houses on the edge of the landslide in Casamicciola. Photo by Eliano IMPERATO / AFP

He noted other parts of the island were not as affected after last weekend's bad weather.

The torrent of mud passed a few hundred metres (yards) from Piro's own house: "I heard a huge noise when this torrent of rocks and soil hit the first houses."

Meanwhile, Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin caused controversy on Monday by suggesting mayors should be face prison over illegal building work in their towns.

"Putting the mayor and all those who allow it in prison would suffice (to stop the illegal building in Italy)," the minister told Rtl 102.5 radio.

"The mayors should not let them build (illegally)".

The comment received instant backlash, Italian media reported, with Bari Mayor Antonio Decaro leading the criticism.

"Minister Pichetto Fratin's comment on the Ischia tragedy, while the search continues for the missing and the victims are still being counted, is an act of unacceptable vulgarity and it denotes serious ignorance of the subject," Decaro said.


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