Some readers have written to us about our opposition to the construction of a bridge over the Straits of Messina. Let’s be clear: our opposition is not based on the view that it is “impossible”. The world is full of examples that show it is technologically possible to build in earthquake zones or in conditions that are even more extreme than those between Sicily and the Italian mainland: in Japan, the US, south east Asia. We are opposed because a bridge over the Straits can in no way be considered a priority. In our view the economic reasons that are given are unjustified, starting from those relating to transport, where sea transport should be given priority over road. We wrote about this in the previous newsletter, but some have asked what we mean by “priority”.

Rather than giving a definition, let’s try a concrete example.

Favignana is the largest of the Aegadian islands off the northwest coast of Sicily, but the same arguments apply to any of the islands around Sicily or the rest of Italy.

Seen from the air, Favignana resembles a butterfly: two plains joined by a central hill. With  3000 or 4000 official inhabitants, the island was self-sufficient and renowned for tuna fishing and its tuna processing plant, a building with an ancient and glorious history. Today (together with the other two main islands of Levanzo and Marettimo) it is a Marine Protected Area, and a mass tourist destination, with 45-50,000 visitors in the summer, rising as high as 70,000.

One by one the traditional economic activities were abandoned, starting with tuna fishing and processing. Farming, once as important as tuna, has been drastically reduced: the island now depends on supplies that arrive by sea. Land that was once productive has been given over to tourist accommodation and in effect tourism, which is mainly concentrated in two or three months in the summer, has become the only source of income.

Unfortunately, however, the island’s structures and services have remained those designed for 3000 people. Apart from the houses which have sprung up like mushrooms on every bit of the island, everything is dependent on the “mainland” which in this case is Sicily, starting from the drinking water which is brought in by ship. Electricity is produced on the spot using powerful diesel generators. The health service consists of a first aid centre which provides a very limited service: those with serious illnesses or injuries have to be evacuated by helicopter or hydrofoil. The firefighters can hardly do anything, partly because they have no large equipment, partly because they commute in daily on the hydrofoils. There’s a water purification plant which was built over a decade ago and has never worked or been connected to the drains … In practice “everything” ends up in the sea, including in the bathing areas. Indeed, never mind the pandemic: every summer viruses circulate that cause diarrhea, fever and other symptoms.

Some might say there’s not enough money, but this is not the case. Thanks to high taxes and surcharges, the funds exist for structural interventions such as a sewage system, solar farms, desalination plants, investment in health and safety … so why not? Perhaps the apathy springs from an inability to create a community and to resist a clientalist and individual system based on “instant gains” and “if you don’t come, others will”. In other words, it is more advantageous to defend “profits” than to combat decline, even though the residents of the island themselves pay a heavy price.

Why should we bother, if those who live there don’t? Because the situation on this island is emblematic of that on all the small and medium islands of Italy. A plan for rationalisation, recovery, securing what is there, would allow tourists to come over a more extended period and for tourism to be less exploitative, both environmentally and economically. Young people would get new employment opportunities that might rely more on longterm activity and less on seasonal contracts. The land could be used for farming and livestock raising more suited to the needs of local people, and less for building.

All that is needed is a national recovery plan, not for the benefit of the big construction companies but for local structures closer to the needs of the populations involved and under their control. How much would a national plan like this cost, one that involved hundreds of places and thousands of people right across Italy?

About the same as a bridge over the Straits of Messina … And this is just one of the priorities for our country.