From Emergency to Mitigation: A New Approach to the Hydrogeological Instability in Italy

The hydrogeological instability is one of the three main hazards affecting Italy together with seismic and volcanic activities. 88% of the Italian municipalities have at least one area classified as at high hydrogeological risk. With an increasing number of disasters resulting from the hydrogeological instability, fueled by both natural and anthropogenic hazards, it is time to re-think the Italian approach to geological risks. Shifting the attention from an emergency mindset to one focused on mitigation will increase communities’ resilience to disasters.

What is and what is worsening the hydrogeological instability in Italy?

According to the Italian Civil Protection Department (“Dipartimento di Protezione Civile Italiana”), hydrogeological instability is a series of phenomena and disasters resulting from water-related risks. These include avalanches, coastal erosions, floods, and landslides. The consequent hydrogeological risk refers to the potential disasters, or catastrophe, caused by liquid, underground, and/or solid water resulting in gauges along rivers’ slopes and water levels increment of water streams. More specifically, the hydraulic risk refers to the effects and damages caused by the reach of critical levels in the watercourse hydrometric levels.

The Status Quo

Law 183/89 adopted by the Italian Parliament on May 18, 2020, established the rules for the organizational and functional reorganization of the defense of the soil. With the legislative decree 152/2006 adopted by the Italian Government by a delegation from the Italian Parliament on April 3, 2006, the latter law was incorporated in articles 67 and 68. The current legislation, in Italian “Piano per l’Assetto Idrogeologico (PAI),” delegates to the Italian regions the elaboration and actuation of hydrogeological risk assessment and plans. PAI’s goal is to assess the geological risk of Italian territory by evaluating both natural hazards and anthropic risks. This serves as a basis to identify priorities for the short- and long-term preparedness activities.


What are the problems associated with the hydrogeological instability in Italy?

The anthropogenic risks associated with hydrogeological instability are worsening the magnitude of disasters. If climate change plays a role in increasing the periodicity of disasters given the high number of Mediterranean cyclones formation and associated heavy rainfalls, the human-touch has exacerbated the situation. Deforestation, growing urbanization, illegal building practices, and non-environmental friendliness of farming methods are contributing to the degradation of the Italian territory.

If the hydrogeological instability is a well-known and long-term studied phenomenon, why are there problems with its mitigation? First, if PAI has also a normative and prescriptive function, there is still a not-fully structured regulatory framework. Second, several actors would be involved in the mitigation process, including the Italian government, regions, cities, the Italian Civil Protection Department, Basin Authority, Reclamation Consortia, and researchers. Among them, different bureaucratic procedures, hierarchies, and information sharing systems, make coordination difficult. This is ultimately preventing to have a national plan for the mitigation of risks associated with the hydrogeological instability that is flexible enough to adapt to the local specificities. Last, there is a lack of attention of local authorities in developing and delivering educational initiatives for citizens that would allow a better understanding of the risks that affect the area in which they live.

The case of the flood in Bitti, Sardinia

On November 18, 2013, the Mediterranean Cyclone Cleopatra hit Sardinia with heavy rains causing at least 16 victims and several damages to the infrastructures. Among the areas severely affected there have been the provinces of Olbia, Oristano, and Nuoro. The city of Bitti, in the latter province, was swept up—again—by the mud flood’s force on November 28, 2020. In 2013, about 3.2 ft of water flooded the tiny streets of the city; the level triplicate in 2020 when about 10 ft of mud flowed the north-east of the city. Bitti appears to be built on top of gravel rivers (“fiumi tombati”) which are rivers whose banks have been reduced and buried underground. Two of these rivers are located in the west part of the city and when heavy rainfall hit the area, conflux into a third river which is the one that has flooded in the north-east part of the city and destroyed properties and infrastructures, while taking the lives of three people.

The question here is whether the 2020’s flood could’ve been prevented considering the events of 2013. Hence, in the last ten years, 420 million euro were devoted to mitigating the effects of the hydrogeological instability in Sardinia: 88.6% of this amount are currently frozen and not yet invested in mitigations plans. Those funds would’ve worked in building infrastructures act to reduce the hydraulic risk while securing areas known for being subject to landslides. With a prompt and coordinated use of these funds, the 2020’s flood would’ve probably had a different scenario.


How can we re-think the approach to the problem?

The current approach to the hydrogeological risk and related disaster is to respond to the emergency. If the attention should be kept on the preparedness, response, and recovery, it is also true that more attention should be given to the phase of mitigation. Thus, mitigation would ultimately reduce the magnitude of the disaster’s impact on local communities. This would reduce the number of fatalities, property damages, and soil degradation. In other words, it is important to consider shifting from an “emergency” mindset to one of “mitigation.”

To make the shift, three paths would be useful to undertake:

  1. Improve and extend the regulatory framework by making it clearer who needs to do what, where, and when; this would improve the decentralization approach by making regions and cities more knowledgeable about their sphere of action and ultimately, more accountable for the activities that have been undertaken or not since a clearer division and assignment of tasks would also improve the accountability and reporting system.
  2. Develop a national plan which has a clear yet unique direction on how to mitigate the hydrogeological instability; this plan should be promoted, elaborated, and overseen by a governance authority able to provide strong leadership at the central level while supporting regions and cities in the implementation of local plans. 
  3.  Involve local entities and citizens in the assessment and mitigation process; by taking advantage of the knowledge about the territory and its specificities owned by local associations, organizations, and not-for-profit, the geological risk assessment process would be easier and more accurate; sensitizing citizens on the hydrogeological risks would ultimately make them more conscious on how to co-live with it, enact procedures of mitigation that start from the bottom, and would ultimately increase the communities resilience to disasters.

Sara Belligoni

Featured Image Credits: Vistanet