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Instability in Sardinia, a complex issue

The region is among those most exposed to geological risk and has potentially good economic resources to carry out the works. However, the distribution of responsibilities between the different bodies and the mechanisms for allocating funds and launching construction sites are holding back the projects’ implementation. This also affects the mechanization front, since the failure to start up the construction sites is holding back the development of demand for specific agricultural machinery and equipment

by Giampiero Moncada
June 2020 | Back

8% of the whole Italian territory, that is to say, 24 thousand square kilometers, is at risk from landslides. Furthermore, of the more than 620,000 landslides recorded by Ispra, the Higher Institute for Environmental Protection, a third is particularly dangerous and endangers people’s lives.

Floods, on the other hand, are less predictable. Nevertheless, Ispra discloses where they would cause the most damage: again, in 8% of the Italian territory.

The plan to eliminate these risks, or at least sharply reduce them, has been in place for years, if not decades; but time and financial resources seem to be found almost exclusively for emergencies.

In one of its reports, Legambiente estimated that the Civil Defence spent 1.1 billion Euros on emergencies throughout Italy between the floods in Messina in 2009 and Olbia in 2013, called “foolishness” by Legambiente because, with less than half of it, prevention work that would have prevented disasters could have been carried out in time.

Therefore, the paradox seems to be that funds to operate on the territory are available but are not spent or, in many cases, are spent ineffectively, that is to say, only temporarily removing a problem that, perhaps, after a few years, is worse than before. The system’s complexity leads to inefficiency in implementing the works and damages the related sectors, first of all, that of agricultural and forestry machinery. In fact, the works for territorial development and to prevent environmental risks require a vast fleet of machinery, consisting in part of earth moving vehicles, such as mechanical shovels or backhoe loaders, and in part of agricultural machineries, such as tractors with all the range of equipment carried and towed that can perform the various processes, or telescopic handlers, in part from the forestry sector, with all the range of vehicles specialized in the management of the forest and woody biomass, up to equipment for cleaning embankments and ditches. If it were possible to survey the need for mechanization for environmental risk interventions, the numbers would be significant, but it is precisely the system of disbursement of funds and starting up the sites that prevent the development of this segment of the market.

Mondo Macchina has already dealt with this topic (n° 7/9 of 2016) and now goes back to it in more detail. This time, it surveys the situation of Italy’s individual regions to give a more detailed picture of how the problem of hydrogeological instability is managed in every local area.

Sardinia is the first region surveyed; it is a place where, even in the recent past, landslides and floods have caused mourning. And this is the case of Olbia, where, in order to prevent a repetition of the disaster of 2013, when a flood caused as many as 18 victims, a project has been waiting to be carried out for six years.

Nevertheless, it is better to go in order. Italy’s second-largest island is in seventh place among all regions, both for the area at risk of landslides and for the area at risk of flooding.

Its financial resources for preventive measures, thanks to European funds, are a total of around 500 million. But only projects that can be allocated by 31 December of next year will really be eligible for funding. Money allocated to works that will not start by that date will be lost. And if, in the meantime, some of the events that research studies consider to be a real risk occur, we will have to intervene urgently, perhaps spending more than we would have spent to avoid it.

Yet, the tools to reverse the trend and invest in prevention, rather than running after emergencies, are available. Ispra’s survey merely shows the areas at risk, but since 2006 Pai Hydrogeological Planning Plan has also been drawn up. It identifies the necessary actions; in other words, what to do to prevent possible landslides or floods. From the financial point of view, there are the funds coming from the European Union, with the European Social Fund, and which are allocated to the various regions by the Ministry of the Environment through Proteggi Italia, the institution that has taken the place of ItaliaSicura whose aim is to coordinate the different financial interventions allocated to hydrogeological instability. Then the Regions manage the funds received through a Commissioner for Hydrogeological instability, that is to say, the president of the Regional Government.

Once the priorities have been established, the interventions to be carried out are taken over by the District Authorities. They start the procedures that require, as a first step, to draw up the projects and submit them to the scrutiny of authorities and organizations that are involved in those parts of the territory: Municipalities, the Civil Engineers, Regional Environment office, and others, such as Mountain Communities. This is when a call for tenders can be launched and the works assigned to the companies that will then have to carry out them.

Despite the legislative changes of these last few years, the timescale has remained so long that funding is withdrawn in many cases because the deadlines expire.

As far as Sardinia is concerned, there is a risk that more than half of the 500 million euros available may end up going back, that is to say, in the EU and Italian State coffers, because many construction sites will not be able to start by next year.

In Olbia as well, where already in 2014, just one year after the tragedy caused by Cyclone Cleopatra, the necessary actions were decided, things are not working out very well. The Municipal government elected in recent years has submitted a different project from that previously approved. This alternative project will have to be submitted, in turn, to the “environmental impact check” and, if the assessment is not favorable, it will have to go through the lengthy bureaucratic process to which the previous one had already been submitted. However, if a positive assessment is made, it will be possible to get the shipyards up and running before the 151 million allocated get back to Rome and Brussels.

Another construction site that is about to open is that of Capoterra, on the outskirts of Cagliari, which suffered damage from a flood even before Olbia. In 2008, a first significant part of interventions, completed in 2018, with a total cost of about 11 million Euros financed by European Funds, was built and tested here by the Sardinia region. In addition to this first action, there are two more: a second part that the commissioner has assigned to Anas, for about 18 million, and a third part under Regional administration, for about 15 million. These projects are now approaching the starting phase. In this case, the delay is due to the Covid-19 emergency, which also forced the building companies to lockdown. Moreover, one of the contractors is from Bergamo, the Italian city, which experienced this pandemic in the most dramatic way.

There are also about 100 million to spend to intervene on the underground canals. That is to say, watercourses that in the past had been covered, and today can be found under a road, under houses or, anyway, inside residential areas. There is always the danger that, in the event of an increase in water flow, the covering explodes, with catastrophic consequences. In these cases, the coverings must be removed, and in some cases, the watercourses must be diverted, at least partially.

All these interventions are part of the prevention activities, which are the essential item of the programmed appropriations. Needless to say, whenever a flood or landslide occurs, the authorities are forced to intervene as a matter of urgency, finding the money required that was not in the budget. On the other hand, the scheduled actions make such slow progress that funding is canceled because it has exceeded the expiry date.

However, the region’s budget has a third item for hydrogeological instability. In addition to Rescue (emergencies after a disaster) and Mitigation (prevention measures), there is also Maintenance. And that makes EUR 8 million a year that are directly managed by the local authorities to maintain what is known as the hydrographic network, that is to say, the network of interconnected canals, watercourses, and river basins.

And it appears that, in this case, the procedures are quicker, and the interventions are timely. Too bad they are too few, considering that they are then split up into 377 municipalities.

So, what are the barriers preventing prevention, and thus to avoid disasters caused by natural events? In what way has the legislator tried to streamline procedures, and why do these legislative adjustments seem not to work?

The changing point could have been the establishment of one Commissioner for each region. A person who would have the powers to overcome some of the most tangled steps in the bureaucratic process. After all, it was with a Commissioner that the new bridge in Genoa could be built in record time.

In Cagliari, however, it is pointed out that the powers of the Commissioner for Hydrogeological instability are not as broad as in the case of Genoa. Suffice it to say, for example, that for the reconstruction of the Morandi bridge alone he had a structure with 19 people plus a manager, while in Sardinia the Commissioner manages almost 150 interventions with only 11 units.

“The Procurement Code, which is supposed to prevent the infiltration of the underworld into public works, ends up simply preventing the works from being carried out,” says Pierpaolo Tilocca, president of the Sardinian construction companies (Ance), “because it complicates the bureaucracy so much that we find ourselves throughout Italy with as much as 49 billion euros unspent. And 21 of these have not even been assigned.”

Tilocca mentions an emblematic case of how public works play an essential role in the local economy: the freeway connecting Sassari to Alghero and “actually reaches Olbia. It is a road that connects three ports (Porto Torres, Olbia, and Golfo Aranci) and two airports (Alghero and Olbia) that are worth 70% of everything that comes in and out of Sardinia”.

Its completion is at risk, and so are the 134 million already allocated for a series of requests for changes that could cause work to be postponed until after the deadline of 31 December 2021. The last to have opposed, in order of time, is the Ministry of Culture.

“I myself and my company,” Tilocca continues, “I have been working on floods in 2004 with projects approved in 2014 and sent to tender as early as December of that year. We have not been able to start yet because, in the only time of the year when the weather conditions allow us to work, the meadow chicken nests right in the construction site area Let it be clear that the environmental reasons are sacrosanct, not least because the environment is the real heritage we have especially on our island. But we have reached the point that in my company, together with engineers and geologists, I had to hire an ornithologist!”.

The environmentalists are actually rooting for prevention work to be done as soon as possible. This is confirmed by Legambiente’s scientific director Andrea Minutolo, who knows the crises and follows the interventions carried out throughout Italy.

“The most significant innovation, at a regulatory level, in the last few years, has probably been the decision to assign to the Presidents of the Region the office of a commissioner for the instability - explains to Mondo Macchina - which is a risky choice, however. Because what should be an operational role, able to act quickly and with an often supra-regional overall vision, ends up with the politician role, by its nature limited to the length of his electoral mandate, and limited to his own territory of government. It would have been better to strengthen, and better structure the District Authorities who, having an overview of the whole territory that a river runs through, could intervene in a more organic, technical and correct way”.

Biomass and bioenergy: development perspective

Among the players involved in prevention on the territory, there are also agricultural and livestock holdings. For the seven-year period ending at the end of next year, about 300 million euros from the EU were allocated to Sardinia.

“The allocations stem from the RDP, a rural development plan, which is presented by each region - states Tore Pala, who, with his farm, is involved in both livestock farming and agriculture and who has a background as an administrator in his municipality, Isili, where he was also Mayor - and has very different measures ranging from animal welfare to compensatory payment for areas subject to severe natural constraints. But interventions that companies carry out in the area that are crucial for retaining the soil are also funded”.

These operations are the removal of stones or the hydraulic lines. Those are expensive interventions, Mr. Pala says, because, otherwise, the waters could stagnate and cause real disasters.

“Most of the time, it is a matter of repairing man-made damage” he adds, “like the deforestation of entire ridges that may have a 40% gradient. The presence of humans and animals improves the environmental context when the interventions are aimed at balance and are not devastating”.  



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