by Francesca Colombo
(IPS) MILAN -- In Sicily the people are thirsty, but not because they lack water. The Italian island receives 7,000 cubic metres of rain annually, nearly triple what is needed to meet demand. But water trickles away, disappearing into the cracks created by poor management, corruption and the Mafia.
Italy, home to 236 rivers and 53 lakes, and is the biggest per capita consumer of water in Europe, and third in the world, after the United States and Canada. But one-third of Italians do not have access to potable water, especially in the southern regions.
In Calabria and Sicily, lack of freshwater affects 53 percent of the population. In both Basilicata and Puglia, 64 percent face shortages.
In the past 20 years, more than $1.4 billion have ended up in the hands of the Mafia members involved in the water business in Sicily. Much of that money has been in the form of bribes, funding for dams that were never built or money spent on the continuous repairs of the water distribution system.
Even back in 1874, the so-called 'guardiani' and 'fontaneri' associated with the mafia charged consumers for water, a vital public resource.
In 1968, most of the 13 water wells registered on the island were managed by Mafia families like the Buffa, Motisi, Marceno and Teresi.
Emerging in the 19th century in southern Italy, the Mafia is led by some 1,500 bosses or 'padrini' who control smuggling rings, prostitution, illegal immigration and trafficking of drugs, human organs, animals, toxic waste and weapons.
"In Sicily, the Mafia traditionally has played an important role in the waterworks concessions and in the construction of new dams and reservoirs. They are not interested in repairing damaged systems because that would be a losing business," Roberto della Sora, director of the environmental group Legambiente, told Tierramerica.
Palermo, capital of Sicily, has springs, wells and rivers to supply its water, but 40 percent of that is wasted in its leaky distribution network. A 6,000-litre tank last year cost 72 to 84 dollars.
The situation grew so extreme that the slogan of the Refounded Communist Party in the last regional elections was "Water in every house and in the countryside, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. No to the Mafia, waste and privatizations."
Today, say the authorities, the 800,000 inhabitants of Palermo are less thirsty, with a yearly per capita consumption of 210 litres and water wastage reaching 27 percent.
"We haven't ruled out Mafia participation, because it is a phenomenon that is always present and cannot be completely eliminated. They are interested in water, but there is little evidence. The state manages water, although there are 1,200 wells in private hands," Dario Allegra, president of the municipal water company, told Tierramérica.
In Agrigento, another city on the island, with 55,000 inhabitants, the population collects rainwater in basins set under the eaves of their homes. In 1986, water service was available just three hours every 18 days, and in 2002, three hours every 15 days.
Agrigento has 14 water reservoirs that are not interconnected, and they feed different parts of the city's distribution network.
Sicily has 30 dams, but not all of them work. Some have been under construction for the past 20 years, and others lose up to 50 percent of the water they are intended to hold.
The Ancipa dam, undergoing repair since 1987, has a potential to hold 34 million cubic metres of water, but today holds just four million cubic metres.
The Rosamarina dam, built in the 1990s, is located in Mafia-controlled territory. It has a capacity of 80 million cubic metres, but is used only to irrigate crops. It was intended to provide water for Palermo as well, but the 200 metres of pipeline needed to do so has never been put in place.
For the past 10 years, the scarcity of funds and an administrative dispute involving different municipalities have paralysed the project.
"The Mafia is in all business, from cement to water distribution, including garbage collection," Siena University engineering professor Giuliano Canatta, president of the Institute of Environment and Resources, said in a conversation with Tierramérica.
On the island of Sicily there are 450 water-related institutions (public and private), mixed partnerships and even consortiums. But none has been able to quench the population's thirst.
The current authorities named a commissioner to organise the system, and they want to privatise water services, though critics argue that water is a common good, not a product to be bought and sold.
"The Mafia has been able to penetrate municipal councils and even the regional parliament. There is a network of complicity and the privatisation processes could fall into their hands," Agrigento provincial secretary Alfonso Frenda, of the Refounded Communist Party, told Tierramérica.
June 28, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.com) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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