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Showing Cracks: Italy’s Beaten Infrastructure

Worsening weather brought on by global climate change has exposed cracks in Italy’s transportation network as roads, bridges, and tunnels begin to fail at faster rates

Last week, record-high floodwaters led to a massive landslide in Italy’s northwestern region of Liguria, causing a highway viaduct to collapse and a local road nearby to wash away. A spokesman for SAIS, the company operating the highway, has announced that they are carrying out investigations, although no casualties have been reported. The incident underscores the precarious state of much of Italy’s infrastructure as roads, railways, and bridges are threatened by increasingly inclement weather.

Liguria, however, is not the only region feeling the effects of two weeks of wild weather. In Piedmont, a woman’s body was recovered after her car was swept away due to a river bursting its banks. In Alessandria, over 200 people were evacuated due to rising floodwaters, with 600 left stranded. 500 people were evacuated from the Aosta Valley, and roads closed due to the risk of avalanches. The storms are estimated to have caused tens of millions of euros of damage to Italy’s agriculture and fishing industries.

Then, just weeks after a record high tide was recorded on November 12th, Venice found itself underwater once again. Environmental activists have demonstrated against Venice’s flood protection programme – which they believe to be inadequate – and have demanded that massive cruise ships be banned from entering the city. The mayor believes that damages caused could clock in at over 1 billion euros.

The heavy rains that impacted Italy also hit France, where four have been recorded dead. At least nine people have died in Italy, France, and Greece due to torrential rains and mudslides.

A Closer Look

Italy’s government has rushed to make new pledges of safety, echoing similar promises made in the past. “We must do all we can to give Liguria a special plan for infrastructure security“, said Infrastructure Minister Paola De Micheli of the centre-left Democratic Party.

One issue preventing the improvement of infrastructure lies in the allocation of funds. Italy’s various regions are currently using only one-fifth of their allowances to address hydro-geological risks. Lack of upkeep has also proven problematic, as many of the roads, bridges, and tunnels built during Italy’s economic boom in the 1950s and 60s have not been properly maintained. And confusion between local, regional, and national jurisdictions has made it hard to take responsibility for many individual projects that require attention.

“There are about 43,000 road bridges in Italy, and responsibility is so fragmented between public and private operators, regions, provinces and towns that for more than 1,600 of them, we don’t know who’s responsible”, said Oliviero Baccelli, professor of transportation politics and economics at Milan’s Bocconi University.

Italy’s still-recovering economy and massive debt burden have contributed to hindering maintenance and modernisation efforts. To limit public investment, many of the largest roadways are operated by private toll companies – some of which are now facing scrutiny over maintenance records, as an increasing amount of infrastructure continues to fail. Reforms to agencies overseeing the riskiest roadways, planned in the wake of last year’s Morandi Bridge collapse, have yet to be enacted.

Global climate change has resulted in fiercer storms and increased floodwaters, with once-in-a-lifetime occurrences now appearing every few years. Meanwhile, infrastructure placed in already treacherous terrain, like steep hillsides or in the mountains, are becoming unstable more quickly.

“We need to monitor not just the infrastructure itself but also the surrounding area”, said geologist Antonello Fiore, head of the Italian Society for Environmental Geology in reference to the northern regions of Liguria and Piedmont. “You can have the most stable viaduct from a structural point of view, but a landslide will rip it down all the same.”


Last year, the Morandi Bridge’s tragic collapse in Genoa during a heavy rain killed 43 people leading newspapers to report that over 300 major bridges across Italy are at risk – though some worry that number is too conservative. Copyright: Luca Rei / Shuttershock.com

Climate and Corruption

Liguria is familiar with precarious infrastructure. Last year, a motorway called the Morandi Bridge collapsed in Genoa during heavy rain, killing 43 people. It was operated by Autostrade per l’Italia, a unit of infrastructure group Atlantia.

It has been alleged that government ministers and the motorway company knew as early as 2014 that the structure was at risk. ASPI managers had told investigators that surveys by motorway risk monitoring company SPEA did not reveal any concerns, but La Repubblica purported that hazards had been laid out in an internal document – later seized by Italy’s financial police – which had been seen at board meetings with ASPI, Atlantia, and government representatives from the Infrastructure Ministry.

Criminologist Anna Sergi noted last year that the influence of the mafia in Italy’s construction industry also plays into the overall failing infrastructure. Thanks to infiltration in Liguria, where investments in construction, public tenders, and ports allow criminal groups to more easily traffic goods illegally, material used in construction is sometimes sub-par. There is no evidence to suggest that Società Italiana Condotte D’Acqua Spa – the construction group which built the bridge – used sub-standard materials, or was mafia-infiltrated at the time it was built. But it is possible that mafia-influenced maintenance might have been insufficient to sustain safe operation – even on an infrastructure that was built up to standard initially.

Moreover, large-scale disasters present the mafia with opportunities to profit in a system known as “the emergency business”. The extent to which criminal organisations are involved in construction, maintenance, and reconstruction is difficult to prove and even more challenging to address, as the topic can often lead to sensationalist reporting and political propaganda.

After the Morandi’s collapse last year, newspapers reported that over 300 major bridges across Italy are at risk, though some worry that number is too conservative. “There are approximately more than one million bridges longer than three metres in Italy. If even only 1 percent, a conservative estimate, are in bad condition, we can estimate that at least a thousand bridges will be in absolute crisis in the next five to twenty years”, predicts Settimo Martinello, Managing Director of 4Emme, a Bolzano-based company that inspects bridges across the Italian peninsula.

Victims of the Genoa tragedy have demanded action, saying that this tragedy “was like going back 15 months for us“. Egle Posetti, president of a committee devoted to the memory of the disaster’s victims, told Ansa news agency that “It was only thanks to pure chance and immense luck that more innocent people did not die. We want a serious commitment from our government and from parliament so that our country is made safe and every trip does not become a game of Russian roulette”.

In response to the viaduct collapse that occurred last month, 5-Star Movement leader Luigi Di Maio, has once again called for the revocation of Atlantia’s motorway concession, writing on Facebook that “These are ironclad contracts which were set up with the knowledge that sooner or later someone with good sense would get into those ministries asking, ‘what the hell have you done?‘”

“To see another bridge collapse in the same region where the Morandi Bridge collapsed, with another highway concessionary which isn’t the Benettons, continues to support our thesis that these concessionaires who don’t maintain bridges and roads must no longer have the concessions”, Di Maio said.

A new viaduct is expected to open by 2021.

Climate Change Strike

Much of Italy’s infrastructure issues stem from erratic weather patterns provoked by climate change.

Last Friday, thousands of Italian students attended the fourth global climate change strike, called by the Fridays for Future youth movement, which attracts students of all ages – from primary school through university. “We want to keep living, and we want to make ourselves heard before it is too late”, shouted one girl while marching near the train station in Rome.

The event was part of a larger, global strike called the week before the annual UN Climate Change Conference, which is currently take placing in Madrid now through December 13th.

Meanwhile, the Italian government has been working on a national climate adaptation plan set to be rolled out in 2023. This past November, Education Minister Lorenzo Fioramonti also announced that 33 hours per school year will be devoted to climate change, as part of existing science programmes in public schools.

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B. Lana Guggenheim

Lana is a freelance journalist based in New York City. She has a M.Sc. in International Conflict from the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has worked as an analyst, reporter, and editor, covering extremism, culture, economics, and democracy.

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