Dirty water for 1 in 3 in Italy. EU imposes sanctions

  • By Ramiro De Rege

Fourteen regions are in breach of European laws racking up €500 m per year in EU fines. Yet €3.5 billion of unspent water purification funds remains unspent.

The 2’034 year old Acqua Vergine aqueduct inaugurated by Agrippa, son of Roman Emperor Augustus, still fuels the capital’s famous Trevi Fountain, much to the delight of the three million tourists that come to see the fountain in Rome every year.

Yet two millennia of loyal services from l’Acqua Vergine is no miracle, rather the fruits of a constant and hard grafted maintenance program. In the same way that the 2’700 year old Cloaca Maxima built by Tarquinius Superbus is the only hydraulic work of the ancient Roman world still functioning today.

So why can Italy not maintain it’s modern acquastructures? The costs are high environmentally, medically and fiscally.

Several districts of the Sicilian city of Catania and the surrounding cities, are not at all connected to the sewage treatment plant, and the sewers that exist discharge, raw and directly into the Mediterranean sea.

In the summer, to avoid swimming in sewage, the collectors are sealed with sandbags causing raw sewage to disperse into the subsoil. In winter, when there are storms, the water is conveyed along Via Etna, a major city road which turns into a raging torrent washing away everything car sized and under.

In Sicily, 60% of the sewage is discharged directly  into the Mediterranean. For years €1.1 billion for treatment facilities have been available here, however only 3 of the 94 treatment plants provided were ever actually opened.

In Italy there has been €3.5 billion allocated in the last fifteen years for water treatment that was never spent. The Authorities estimate that only 55% of the necessary works planned have ever been realised.

Causes: judicial appeals, design errors, political conflicts, and robberies.

Consequences: one third of Italy lives with a water system outlawed by European laws. Purifiers are nonexistent, water treatment facilities are inadequate and their number insufficient. Raw sewage is therefore dumped directly into the a major swimming and fishing sea, the Mediterranean which is a major tourist attraction. Sewage is forced into the ground water that supplies Italian with their often unpurified drinking water, and quenches the land from which they grow their food. The European Union had extended it’s deadlines for correctional work to be carried out until 2016, when Italy will be hit by EU sanctions to the tune of half a billion Euro per year. A nonsensical move, taking the money away that is needed to carry out the works.  

In 1991 Europe addressed Italy over the toxicity of the water it was dumping into the land, ground and sea. In 2000  Europe issued a directive that required Italy to achieve good water status by 2015, which has now been extended to 2016. Italy suffered the first sanction in 2012 and the second in 2014. The third and heaviest will come after the new year. Already in austerity, sanction a matter of months away Italian media La Stampa reports, Italy must now pay €200 million as an initial minimum with the bill coming in at €500 million a year.

Since 1994, the law obliges the regions to divide the territory into ATOs with similar characteristics. Each Ato, formed by the towns of the area, is run by a single manager who organises all of the water service, from the source to the treatment plant, funded by Italian citizens, the fee, which incorporates investment for maintenance.

Extraordinary works are state funded. It is not a complex system, it works well across Europe. Even in Italy, where the idea originated, there are some of the nations 20 Regioni where the system is working. There are still 2’500 managers however, in a system that many feel should take less than a hundred. The recent EU sanctions relate to the regions:  Abruzzo, Calabria, Campania, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, Liguria, Lombardia, Marche, Piemonte, Puglia, Sardinia, Sicily, Valle d’Aosta and Veneto, fourteen out of twenty. And in 2’500 Municipalities of about eight thousand, including capitals such as Trieste, Imperia, Naple (Napoli), Reggio Calabria, Agrigento, Messina and Ragusa and tourist areas such as Capri, Ischia, Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure, Porto Cesareo, Soverato, Cefalu and Giardini Naxos. 175 municipalities in Sicily, in Calabria 130, 128 in Lombardy and 125 in Campania, have all been cited as breaching Italian and EU rules for water treatment and management.

In recent days, unequivocal data was presented in Milan during the Water Festival. European nations on average invest €50 per inhabitant per year to maintain a safe and legal water system. €88 in France, Holland and England €100, in Denmark €126. In Italy, €34. Italian media have described the water situation in Italy as, “Third World”.

In Italy aqueducts loose 50% (south, 30% north) of their water, by comparison the German efficiency is a loss of 6.5%.