What we have learned in the aftermath of the Ischia landslide

After a landslide led to twelve deaths on the island of Ischia, questions have been raised about the impacts of illegal building, tourism, and climate change.

The landslide that hit Ischia in the night between November 25th and 26th 2022 raised questions about hydrogeological risk and its management, illegal construction, and misuse of funds. But there is even more at play. Climate change and its impact on densely populated coastal areas and the impact of touristification on local populations are also factors that played a role in the intricate context of this event.

Ischia Landslide: what happened exactly?

Ischia, an island located near Naples off the coast of Southern Italy, was hit by heavy rainfall in the night between November 25th and 26th, 2022. The rain caused flooding and at dawn, a landslide hit an area called “Celalrio” in one of the island’s six towns, Casamicciola Terme. The landslide caused devastation in the area. Twelve people lost their lives, four others were injured, and hundreds of people were displaced. The landslide also damaged both private homes and businesses.

The landslide that hit Ischia heavily impacted local businesses operating in the town of Casamicciola © Roberta Fabbrocino

Hydrogeological risk and its management

The risk of such events occurring in much of Italy is well-documented. The Italian public research institute ISPRA published a report in 2021 highlighting that 93.9% of Italian municipalities are at risk of landslides, floods, and coastal erosion. This number means that in Italy, 1.3 million people are at risk of being exposed to landslides, while 6.8 million people are at risk of flooding. The island of Ischia faces significant hydrogeological risk, as 49% of the its area is classified as at high risk of landslides.

Climate change influences and exacerbates hydrogeological risk, increasing the likelihood or severity of extreme weather. According to a report elaborated by Legambiente’s Cittàclima Observatory, in Italy in 2022, there was an increase in extreme weather-hydrogeological events amounting to 55% compared to the previous year.

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Volunteers working to clean up in the aftermath of the landslide ©️ Ivan Romano/Getty Images

When the hydrogeological risk in an area is high, carrying out maintenance work along the paths that surface runoff takes is vital to guarantee the safety of local residents. That’s because surface runoff tends to flow downhill from high areas to the lowest elevation it can reach and then into bodies of water, and if it meets obstacles along the way, these can modify its path.

The presence of obstructions on this surface runoff path in the area hit by the landslide was noted by both authorities and locals, including Casamicciola’s former mayor Giuseppe Conte who shared his concern in emails sent to several local and regional authorities, emails that went unanswered.

Illegal building: what do the numbers tell us?

Following the event, questions have been raised about the phenomenon of illegal building, its frequency in Ischia, and its potential impact on the landslide. A specific figure in particular has been cited with regard to illegal building happening on the island: the 28.000 building amnesty requests submitted by people residing on the island, whose entire population amounts to 60.000. Such requests, however, are submitted not just for brand-new buildings but also for smaller building works, like the addition of a window.

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The landslide caused considerable damage on the island ©️ Ivan Romano/Getty Images

The practice of illegal building is present and well-known on the island. We can find its roots in the area’s high population density, and in touristification’s staggering impact on the island. In Ischia, part of a region with one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe, the effects of mass tourism on the housing market have had tangible consequences. As many private homes have been converted into small lodging establishments to cater to the hundreds of thousands of tourists visiting the small island every year, the availability of houses to rent has decreased.

In addition, mass tourism has also caused rent inflation, with rents higher than many locals can afford. This housing crisis isn’t happening only on this Italian island, as locals in many other tourist locations across Europe feel the effects of tourism activity on their ability to afford housing.

January 2023: The signs of the landslide are still visible in the streets of Casamicciola © Roberta Fabbrocino

What happens now?

Following the event, the Naples Public prosecutor’s office has filed a case against unknown persons for culpable disaster. On 9th December 2022, even more residents had to evacuate their homes after a severe weather warning was issued by the Region’s Protezione Civile, the body that deals with the management of emergency events in the area.

In case of other emergencies of this kind, the city hall will warn the local population of Casamicciola of the imminent danger by an alert system that will make their mobile phones ring. On January 3rd 2023, the Tuscan company Geologica Toscana was appointed to draft Casamicciola’s municipal emergency plan (PEC), aimed at dealing with emergencies through the creation of a coordinated system of actions and cooperating bodies. The residents displaced by the landslide still temporarily reside in a local hotel.

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