CAPUA, Italy (Reuters) - Hundreds of rubbish bags bake in the sun, a putrid stench hangs over streets of pastel-colored houses and apartment blocks.
This is Capua, a small, historic town like many others on the outskirts of Naples gripped by a garbage crisis that has dogged the southern Campania region for years.
With the few landfill sites in the area topped to the brim, garbage collectors have stopped picking up rubbish, forcing residents to dump their waste on the streets.
“It’s an absolute disgrace for the town,” said local student Michela Giordano. “The stench is truly unbearable. Look at all these dogs running about. We’ll all die at this rate.”
Bad administration, shady political deals and the interference of the Mafia are at the heart of the crisis.
The Camorra, Naples’ version of the Mafia, is accused by environmentalists of creating illegal waste dumps where it burns hazardous waste. Environmental group Legambiente says the illegal waste racket rakes in as much as 22 billion euros ($30 billion) a year.
Officials estimated as much as 3,000 tonnes of rubbish piled up in the streets of Naples alone before emergency crews finally removed some of it. But the worst is yet to come with the area’s main landfill closing in a few days and no substitute ready.
Fearing an epidemic, locals are regularly setting trash piles on fire, despite warnings from authorities this creates toxic fumes.
“The other day I saw a girl walking by who was so overwhelmed by the stench that she ended up vomiting right there in front of the garbage,” said Cristina Izzo, owner of a cafe around the corner from a large garbage heap in Capua.
“They have to find a solution because we can’t live like this,” she said.
A ‘state of emergency’ was declared for large areas of the under-developed south as far back as 1994, but a string of government-appointed refuse supremos have failed to solve the dilemma.
Guido Bertolaso, the latest ‘rubbish tsar’ appointed last year, has threatened to resign several times because his decisions on where to build new waste dumps are often undermined by local or national policymakers.
Bertolaso, who is also head of Italy’s civil protection agency, proposed creating a new waste dump in the town of Serre but that triggered new protests by locals fearing a threat to their health.
Residents say each effort to solve the recurring crisis is counteracted by the Mafia’s efforts.
“Behind the emergency, economic interests are being looked after that are not clear or clean,” said Pompeii’s Bishop Carlo Liberati. “From some parts, this protest has clearly been fuelled by a need to maintain the status quo. But we are already at the limits of our tolerance and I fear the risk of a civil revolt.”
But after years of watching the rubbish crisis reappear with alarming regularity, Angelo Rossi is one of many in towns like Capua who is not holding his breath for a solution.
“It’s a problem and an embarrassment,” he said, sitting at the train station that opens out on to heaps of garbage. “But what can we do? Demonstrate? What use is that?”