Italy's deadly flirtation with illegal building

A view of the damage caused by the earthquake in Ischia island, Italy, on Aug 22, 2017.
A view of the damage caused by the earthquake in Ischia island, Italy, on Aug 22, 2017. PHOTO: EPA

ROME (AFP) - As Italy reels from another earthquake, experts warned on Wednesday (Aug 23) 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 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 per cent of them are carried out.

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, 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 Mr 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 25cm, 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 "70km long and 3,000m tall, 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, Mr 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.