Italy – Millions at Risk of Floods and Landslides as Mitigation Projects Delayed

A recent report by the environmentalist association Legambiente says that millions of people remain at risk of floods and landslides in Italy because local municipalities are delaying risk reduction and prevention projects while still allowing homes to be built in flood-risk areas.

Italy has a long record of hydro-geological related events. Given its peculiar geomorphological conformation, Italy is particularly prone to floods and landslides. According to the recent 2015 update of the report on hydro-geological risk in Italy by the Higher Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (Istituto superiore per la protezione e la ricerca ambientale, ISPRA), at least the 18% of the national territory is exposed to hydrological or geological risk, affecting 88% of the Italian municipalities.

In the period from 2010 to 2014, there were 145 deaths and 44,528 people displaced due to floods and severe weather related events, according to the Research Institute for hydrogeological protection (Istituto di ricerca per la protezione idrogeologica, IRPI). Almost all Italian provinces (97 over a total of 110) were affected.

Flood events usually affect more densely populated areas. Viable solutions to reduce risk and damage include lowering levels of exposure and vulnerability with a combination of structural and non-structural prevention measurements.

The Italian Council Presidency, through the establishment in 2014 of the structure of the “Italia Sicura” mission, placed the focus on structural projects for mitigation and prevention of flooding.

Nevertheless, in order to be effective, prevention activities should not be exclusively focussed on the implementation of structural projects, but should provide a comprehensive approach that involves planning, management and preparedness at different levels.

A key role in developing and improving prevention actions should be played at the local level, with the local municipality as the main actors. Better urban planning policies, a change in land use management, a deeper knowledge and mapping of areas at risk, the organisation of local systems of civil protection and the increase of citizens’ awareness and preparedness are required to enhance cities’ preparedness and resilience to flood related risks.

The Legambiente Report

The recent report “Ecosistema Rischio”, published by the Italian environmentalist association Legambiente, addresses this issue with a detailed investigation on the activities undertaken by the country’s municipalities to mitigate hydro-geological risk.

For this report Legambiente gathered and processed general data about flood and landslide exposure in 1,400 Italian municipalities (almost 20% of the total), monitoring in detail the mitigation and prevention activities carried out over the last few years.

Legambiente focused the attention on municipality level as each town is responsible for its land management and subsequent risk reduction, and also because each municipal mayor is the first authority in civil defence, according to Italian legislation.

In Italy as many as 7 million people live in areas prone to flood or landslide risk. The main objective of the report has been the analysis of the activities undertaken by each municipality to understand and reduce exposure and vulnerability in its own territory.

The results of the study show that there persists a significant delay in carrying out risk reduction and prevention projects, resulting in a large portion of the Italian population still being exposed to (and poorly prepared for) floods and landslides.

Wide Areas at Risk as Building Development Continues

Looking at the numbers, as many as 1,075 municipalities (equal to 77% of those surveyed) have properties that are in at-risk areas.

In 29% of the municipalities the report revealed that entire neighbourhoods are at risk and in more than the half of the surveyed cities (51%) an industrial area is located in a flood or landslide prone area.

In 18% of the cases, a public building, such as a school or health centre, is located in a risk area.

The most alarming fact of the Legambiente study is that the unplanned and incongruous property building and is continuing, with at least 10% of the surveyed municipalities allowing new houses to be built in at-risk areas in the last decade.

Despite this intense urbanisation in flood prone areas, only 4% of the municipalities have undertaken building relocation operations, and only 1% of municipalities have attempted to relocate at-risk industrial areas.

Risk Reduction

The survey also monitored the actions taken by the municipalities to reduce flood and landslide risks.

Sixty-eight percent of the municipalities said they regularly carry out routine maintenance of river banks. Seventy percent of the municipalities had carried out construction work to reduce hydro-geological risk.

Further analysis of the construction work revealed that the majority of the projects (up to 40%) were structural civil engineering and geotechnical measures, such as levees or consolidation walls, while less invasive measures such as natural attenuation basins (room for the river) or re-vegetation of slopes made up only 10% of the total number of projects.

Public education, dissemination of information and preparedness activities were also found to be lacking or inadequate.

Although it is true that 84% of the surveyed municipalities have an emergency plan, less than half (41%) have updated their plan in the last few years and only the 30% have carried out simulation activities, fundamental in enhancing citizen preparedness and responsiveness in case of severe events.

Further Action Needed

The Legambiente study shows that while there is increasing attention and interest in flood related problems, there is still a significant delay in undertaking proper prevention activities, especially at the level where they can be more effective: the municipality one.

Local scale is central to disaster management and prevention. As scientific studies support, severe events are likely increasing in probability and intensity due to global scale phenomena, but an effective response to these events is mainly locally based, with non-structural management and planning actions playing a major role.

Risk is a combination of two main factors: hazard and exposure-vulnerability. Municipalities and citizens must give their best efforts trying to reduce anthropic impact on the environment to prevent a probable deterioration of the natural condition of hazard. These efforts are usually indirect and results are time-demanding. Still, municipalities and citizens do have direct and effective impact on exposure and vulnerability reduction policies.

Damages, impacts and human losses in cities are mainly due to the extraordinary level of exposure to hydro-meteorological risks reached with unplanned urbanisation and misguided structural and non-structural actions of prevention.