People in Italy die in earthquakes that would not cause major problems in other parts of the world. A 4.3 magnitude quake hit the isle of Ischia, off the coast of Naples, on the night of Monday 21 August, killing two people, injuring dozens, and displacing thousands. A quake with a rather low level of magnitude caused deaths, destroyed buildings, and spread panic.

The disaster occurred a few days before the first anniversary of a major quake that killed nearly 300 people in central Italy, most of them in the town of Amatrice.

In great part of the Western world, laws rule what is legal and what is not. In Italy, at least with regards to city planning, this is not the case. I learned through experience how difficult it is to find the right words to explain a typical Italian vice – unauthorised building construction– to those who are not Italians.

This is partly because this phenomenon, a real plague with devastating effects, is strictly connected to another element, peculiar to our peninsula, but hard to understand by citizens from any other country: Condono, a sort of amnesty for irregular buildings' owners.

Three times, between 1985 and 2003, governments implemented measures that allowed people who had committed construction abuses to legalise them in return for fine payments. This enabled them to erase criminal violations.

More than 15 million requests for amnesty have been submitted in Italy in the past years. Of these, one-third are still to be examined, meaning that a lot of buildings live in a sort of limbo; they are neither legal nor illegal.

In Ischia alone, at least 7,235 requests of amnesty for illegal buildings have been submitted in the past 30 years. Of these, 4,408 still need to be evaluated.

Ischia earthquake Italy
Eleven-year-old Ciro is rescued from the rubble in Casamicciola after the earthquake on the island of IschiaEliano Imperato/AFP

The result is that we have to deal with very fragile buildings, mainly exposed to natural disasters, including those with low intensity, as it happened days ago in Ischia.

In such big numbers, we can find both little abuses – such as the covering of a porch – and big abuses, such as the construction of buildings that considerably disfigure landscapes and are built purely for speculative goals.

Italy witnessed spontaneous house building in the first part of the 20th century, above all after World War II. From the 1960s onward, our peninsula experienced huge residential allocations in big towns, secondary house building in holiday resorts, and the building of accommodation for mass tourism.

Often it meant building quickly to avoid controls and using low cost and low quality materials, because there was no need to respect plans and projects as well as regulations.

Moreover, we must not forget that, quite often, illegal buildings were built exactly where it is forbidden, due to hydro-geological or seismic instability.

Making Italian building heritage safe would cost around €100bn (£92bn; $118bn). It is a huge amount, but for sure less than the whole amount spent to take care of the disasters that have occurred in the past decades: Friuli, Irpinia, L'Aquila, Amatrice, just to mention some.

A real U-turn will be done only with a double cultural jump. On one side, administrators must understand they can't exchange people's safety with electoral consensus. They must be strict and demolish what have been built disregarding rules and common feeling.

On the other side, citizens must change their frame of mind and understand that a house is a right but it takes obligations too: every building must be legal, sustainable and safe. Otherwise the death, injured and damage count will be never stopped in Italy.

Sandro Simoncini is an engineer and teacher of Urban and environmental legislation at the University of Rome La Sapienza. He is the president of Sogeea Ltd. and scientific director of company's research facility. Follow him on Twitter.