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Hydrogeological instability, still an open question

The risks linked to floods and overflows are particularly high in Italy, partly due to its soil morphological properties and partly to a deficit in land maintenance activities, that should be carried out to reduce the impact of natural disasters. A crucial role is played by Land Reclamation Consortia, Basin Authorities and many other research institutions. In this context, the demand on a fleet of machinery to be used for maintenance and in case of emergency is still high

by Giampiero Moncada
July - August - September 2016 | Back

All hopes are now placed in a facility that the current government created by the end of 2014 and launched with a real advertising campaign, according to the rules of political marketing. The so-called “unità di missione” (mission unit) Italia sicura ( site/home.html), should be entitled to develop a soil conservation planning, in both urban and rural areas.

Maintenance works have been planned for the next five years at a cost of 7 billion euro. The priority has been given to metropolitan cities, in which environmental disasters would imply huge risks for human lives, in addition to the consequences on real estate assets and related costs of reconstruction. Therefore, to these areas is destined the first allocation of 1.3 billion euro, 400 million of which for the city of Genoa only. Within the year will be open construction sites for 400 million euro, while the rest of works will be operative 90% in the half of 2017. It is quite a small figure, considering that 25 billion euro are necessary for securing Italy, as director of Italia Sicura Mauro Grassi said on 27 of May during the Forum Cesi on hydrogeological instability.

“Italy is unfortunately dealing with a difficult situation, not due to a structural lack of funds” explained, “but rather because in the past few years, these funds – although allocated – have never been spent. Our authority found about 2.7 billion euro for the prevention of landslides and floods that have never been turned into concrete works, as well as 300 million euro of old funds of 2009, 1.2 billion from the 2010 programme agreements with the Regions and 700 million of funds of other agreements as well as European structural funds. To date, with part of these funds, are being carried out over 1,500 works for 2 billion and 100 million euro”.

As a matter of fact, it is well known how and where to intervene, considering that plans of maintenance interventions are regularly scheduled and updated by several public institutions: Ispra (Italian National Institute for Enviromental Protection and Research), which every year submits a report on hydrogeological instability in Italy; Land Reclamation Consortia, to which is delegated by law the protection of alluvial areas and Basin Authorities, which have jurisdiction over the entire rural territory. Therefore, Cnr (National Research Council) developed the Sici (Information System on Hydrogeological and Geomorphological Catastrophes in Italy) and Irpi (Research Institute for Hydrogeological Protection), not to mention Legambiente, which – despite being a private association – has a peer-to-peer dialogue with public institutions. Other initiatives are promoted by regions and municipalities in the name of local autonomy, such as surveys and plans of maintenance interventions, clashing with limited financial resources and inefficiency of public bodies. Most of the times these are emergency plans following natural disasters such as landslides or floods, then reported globally.  The work by Ispra consists, to a large extent, in preparing a homogeneous map by collecting several documents, in an attempt to assess the demands of the entire country. This operation is called, in technical jargon, “mosaicking”.

“In our report we collect information supplied by many different bodies”, explains Alessandro Trigila, manager at Ispra of the Iffi project for the monitoring of landslides, “by regions and autonomous provinces on landslides and by Basin Authorities on erosion and floods. Of course, we have to collect all the figures and then standardise them, since each authority provide them according to their own criteria. This process is in fact called mosaicking”. “There is definitely a close relationship with agricultural activities which may, on the one hand, increase risks and consequences of climate events on the territory and on the other hand be the best defense for its protection”.

“A farmer tends to shape the land to facilitate its sowing and harvesting”, explains Trigila, “and so at first glance he would rather reduce height differences of soil and facilitate mechanized operations. For example, there has been a gradual abandonment of terraces, which require specific maintenance, with a special regard to dry stone walls. However, this type of intervention has a harmful effect, as it favours both landslides and the process of erosion. As a consequence, High-value specialty crops, such as Taggiasca olives from Liguria – typical of the most uneven lands and requiring greater care and more intense use of labor – are often preferred. These are profitable crops, the higher costs of which have been largely recovered thanks to a higher final price”.

The 150 Land Reclamation Consortia are involved in the issue of “good agricultural practices”, providing yearly maintenance interventions for a total amount of 600 million euro and publishing an extra plan of prevention, that has never been implemented. Last plan of 2015 included interventions for 8.5 billion euro. In the past, only a part of the maintenance interventions suggested by Anbi (Association of Land Reclamation Consortia – was carried out by the State.

“The budget of our Consortia, equal to 600 million a year, spent for ordinary maintenance, is in fact represented by membership fees, payed by the owners of a property within the consortium perimeter”, explains the president of Anbi Francesco Vincenzi, “while the extra plan, developed from the local knowledge of the territory, concerns interventions that should be done by the State. However, we also train farmers on how they can achieve a profitable activity and, at the same time, intervene on land protection. I can make just one example: tillage transverse to the slope, rather than longitudinal, is enough to contribute to the containment of water in soil. These precautions may of course be applied primarily on the hill and the mountain territory. Once informed on these aspects, farmers become the real resource owned by our country. The proof is that where there is no agriculture, problems are much greater”.


The function of land reclamation consortia

“Basically, we have to manage artificial canals” explains Vincenzi “because our territory is mainly artificial. It has been modified for various reasons, from food to sanitary needs, as in the case of malaria, which was eradicated through land reclamation works. We also manage the distribution of water supplies to farms. This fact has a consequence on food quality: from the economic point of view, a non-irrigated hectare produces 15 times less than a well-watered soil”.

With or without agricultural activities, rural areas represent a management issue that Italy has underestimated for too long. In urban areas, the problems seem even more serious. According to the “Ecosistema rischio” report (Ecosystem at risk), recently published by Legambiente, in the years 2012-2014, landslides and floods caused 145 victims and over 44,000 people had to abandon their homes. These events regarded 625 Italian municipalities.  “This survey was conducted through questionnaires sent in 2015 to over 8,000 Italian municipalities. Of these, 1,444 replied but only 1,399 questionnaires were used, because the other 45 were incomplete. From this database, although partial, resulted that the hazard of landslides and floods regards 7 million people of 1,075 municipalities. In the 51% of cases, in hazardous areas are located industrial plants, while the 18% of cases concerns sensitive facilities, such as schools and hospitals”. The current situation suggests that settlements built in hazardous areas should be transferred and rebuilt in safe areas. Nothing that may be planned and implemented in a short time and at low cost. This is why an essential role is played by the ordinary maintenance of the territory, to be carried out by using specific machinery and equipment. The sectors of agricultural mechanics, heavy equipment and maintenance of green areas offer a wide range of technologies – customized tractors, excavators, systems for cutting, transport and processing of wood, equipment for the maintenance of ditches and canals and all those implements that may contribute to an efficient maintenance –  and represent the first defence against the risks of hydrogeological instability. FederUnacoma (Italian Federation of Agricultural Machinery Manufacturers) hopes that in the plans of intervention for the protection and safeguard of the territory shall be included specific references to promote the purchase by local governments of machinery and technologies for both prevention and emergency use.


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