L’atmosfera napoletana

In the realms of UPE, research has primarily focused on urban flows like water, sewage and food. However, as with many cities like Naples, the flow of air through the city is often forgotten, most probably as it is an invisible urban flow (Graham 2015; Swyngedouw, 2006). Arguably, many have focused on water, food and land in Naples as the externalities are immediate, but undeniably air is as crucial as any other flow (Véron 2006). In Naples, the consequences of air pollution were only noticed when people began developing and dying from respiratory diseases, which was far too late (Parodi et al. 2004). This blog aims to explore how Naples’ air or ‘atmosfera’; as it is said in Italian, has been significantly impacted due to its ongoing waste crisis. 

Causes of worsening air quality:
You may be thinking what does illegal fly-tipping have to do with air quality? Well, we must understand how this waste has been ‘taken care of’ so to speak. In short, the Camorra have been burning domestic waste in the Neapolitan countryside near the towns of Acerra, Nola and  Marigliano (Saviano 2007; Antonopoulos 2016). For the Camorra, illegally dumping waste for wealthy Italian businesses in the north has proved a significant income source. However, one thing that has limited the organisation’s operations has been physical space (Passoti 2010). Space is limited, which also limits the amount of waste that can be disposed of. However, by burning waste to ashes, the Camorra have illegally disposed of tons of domestic and industrial waste without worrying about where all the waste can go (Saviano 2007). 

However, it is not just the Camorra who is to blame for poisoning Naples’ air. During the peak of the crisis in 2009, the Italian government decided to build an incinerator in Acerra to treat the city’s waste locally. This incinerator can burn over 600,000 tons of waste per year (Ahmed et al. 2009). Many argued the fine particulates released from the incinerator combined with the Camorra’s waste burning have only worsened the air quality for those living in Naples. What has made this situation even worse is that the Campania region has seen extensive deforestation over the last 20 years, reducing carbon capture volumes. This deforestation is primarily to make space for buffalo farms but partly because of the Camorra’s construction of dumping grounds (Saviano 2007). 

Waste being openly burnt in downtown Naples (picture taken in 2011) (photo courtesy of VOA)

Implications of poor air quality:
So, how impactful has this waste crisis been for Naples? To answer that question, we must look at statistics. Senior and Mazza (2004) found that rates of liver cancer in Naples were 36 (per 100,000 habitants) amongst men and 20 amongst women (per 100,000 habitants). In contrast, the national average in Italy is 14 and 6 (per 100,000 habitants) respectively. Their data also concluded that leukaemia rates and laryngeal cancer in Naples’ are much higher than Italy’s average. However Senior and Mazza (2004) found that the rates of cancer and respiratory disease are far higher in rural Naples than the city proper. The proximity of rural settlers to these disposal and incineration sites has therefore exposed them to greater fumes and hazardous waste, causing a disproportionate impact on rural citizens (Ibid 2004). Officials still believe that the higher rates of cancer in Naples and wider Campania are driven by Neapolitans’ poor lifestyle choices (Iengo and Armiero 2017). Arguably, the government’s denial of these claims indicates their failures; however, they fail to admit their role in this crisis. Even though the damage has been done, shouldn’t it be in the government’s interest to recognise their failures and address them accordingly?

This waste crisis has also impacted the odour of the city. I recognise that the city’s smell might not be as crucial as rising rates of cancer. However, many Neapolitans have expressed their anger and frustration over the foul smell of waste in their city, according to Saviano (2007: 286) “a strong, acid smell blossoms when it rains”, which has bought many Neapolitans to their breaking point. During my visit in the peak of summer, one thing I could remember walking down the alleys was the putrid smell of overflowing bins (made worse by the intense heat). These smells were hard to bear for a week. I could never imagine having to live amongst them like many Neapolitans are forced to do.

To conclude, the case of Naples and its air quality highlights the externalities of broken metabolic links; however, the externalities of poor air quality are often recognised when it is far too late. Though the neglect for air quality is not exclusive to Naples, for many cities the externalities of poor air quality are sometimes much worse, but not understood well. Therefore, it is paramount that ‘air’ is closely understood and regulated, as this hidden urban flow is often forgotten and disregarded. Nonetheless for Naples, the denial of the government to recognise their failures tells a lot about the crisis, and that is that the situation is incredibly complex and politically contested. 

References: (10)

Ahmed, M., Scerbo M., Izzo, P., Parrilli, M., Coccia, F.,Ganga, V. & Anilir, S. (2009) ‘A Community-based Waste Management System for the Historic Centre of Naples’. Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 8:2, 363-370 

Antonopoulos, G. A. (2016) Illegal entrepreneurship, organised crime and social control: essays in the honour of Professor Dick Hobbins, Berlin: Springer (pp. 86-95)

Graham, S. (2015) ‘Life support: the political ecology of urban air’. City, 19:2-3, 192-215

Iengo, L. and Armiero, M. (2017) ‘The politicisation of ill bodies in Campania, Italy’. Journal of Political Ecology, 24, 45-58

Parodi S., Baldi R., Benco C., (2004) ‘Lung cancer mortality in a district of La Spezia (Italy) exposed to air pollution from industrial plants.’ Tumori 90, 181–85. 

Pasotti, E. (2010) ‘Sorting through the trash: the waste management crisis in Southern Italy.’ South European Society and Politics, 2:15, 289-307

Saviano, R. (2007) Gomorrah. Italy’s other mafia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Senior, K. and Mazza, A. (2004) ‘Italian “triangle of death” linked to waste crisis’. Reportage, 5, 525-527

Swyngedouw, E (2006) ‘Metabolic urbanisation, the making of cyborg cities’ in Heynen, N., Kaika, M. and Swyngedouw, E. (eds) In the nature of cities, urban political ecology and the politics of urban metabolism, Abingdon: Routledge 

Véron, R. (2006) ‘Remaking urban environments: the political ecology of air pollution in Delhi’. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 38:11, 2093-2109

2 thoughts on “L’atmosfera napoletana

  1. This is a really engaging piece Nasir! Its interesting how despite our dependance on air, we seem to neglect it in our discussions of urban settings. I find it fascinating how you link your previous blog topic of waste to air quality, and then explore what implications this has. It excellently displays the interconnected nature of urban metabolic flows and UPE in general.

    Liked by 1 person

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