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From drought to century's worst floods: Emilia-Romagna disaster lays bare Italy's climate vulnerabilities

Nurmaganbetova Zhanna
25 May 2023, 12:28

From drought to century's worst floods: Emilia-Romagna disaster lays bare Italy's climate vulnerabilities Photo:

ROME. KAZINFORM Torrential rains have wreaked havoc in Italy over the past week, triggering floods that claimed more than a dozen lives, displaced more than 20,000 people, and destroyed thousands of homes and acres of cropland.

The devastation was largely in the northern Emilia-Romagna region and parts of the neighboring Marche, where some residents have lost everything, Anadolu Agency reports.

The weather disaster – the latest in a series of similar catastrophic incidents over recent years – is a painful reminder of how Italy is particularly exposed to extreme meteorological events, reviving concerns that it must do more to safeguard its territory.

«This is the result of the dangerous mix of Italy’s fragility and the increase in extreme weather events, threatening its territory and its inhabitants,» said Paride Antolini, president of the regional organization of geologists in Emilia-Romagna.

Almost 94% of Italy’s municipalities are prone to floods, landslides, coastal erosion and other natural disasters, according to a 2021 report by the Italian Institute for Environmental Research and Protection.

More than 8 million people are at risk of landslides or floods, in areas mostly in the north of the country, but also in the southwestern Campania region, home to Italy’s third-largest city Naples.

Accounting for two-thirds of all landslides recorded in Europe, Italy is the most vulnerable to such events on the continent, the country’s Court of Audit said in the same year.

Last summer, an unusual heat wave coupled with one of the worst droughts in decades caused an avalanche in the Italian Alps, killing 11 people.

In September, around a dozen more were killed by floods in Marche, while two months later, 12 people died on the island of Ischia, near Naples, after heavy rain sparked a landslide.

«Despite the many regulatory, organizational and procedural interventions, the fight against and prevention of hydrogeological instability increasingly represents a national emergency and a real priority for the country,» the Court of Audit said in its report.

What makes matters worse is that Italy is very slow at spending the billions of euros allocated to mitigate the degradation of its land and soil, often due to excessive red tape and the lack of technical expertise among local administrations.

Italy’s extreme weather challenge

The temperature of the Mediterranean Sea is rising faster than that of the oceans, which is why many scientists have identified the region as a climate change hotspot.

Since the Mediterranean surrounds the Italian peninsula, the country is much more exposed to extreme weather events, such as torrential rains, than other European countries, said Stefano Liberti, a journalist and author of a book on the effects of climate change on Italy.

The characteristics of Italy’s soil, which is proportionally the most covered by buildings and roads in Europe, make it also particularly vulnerable to these events, said Liberti.

The Emilia-Romagna disaster was caused when a quantity of rain comparable to a six-month average poured down in the span of just a few days, according to several meteorologists.

The region also faced a prolonged and severe drought, making the soil less absorbent than usual and contributing to the violent nature of the floods.

Residents and authorities are now assessing the damage and trying to pick up the pieces after what some scientists have branded Italy’s worst floods in a century.

Counting the cost

While cost estimates are hard to make at this stage, Irene Priolo, vice president of the Emilia-Romagna region, has placed the figure at around €5 billion to €6 billion ($5.4 billion to $6.5 billion).

The floods took a particularly heavy toll on agriculture, devastating more than 5,000 producers and livestock breeders, according to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti.

Some 400 million kilograms (over 400,000 tons) of wheat were lost, as were almost 15 million fruit trees, a major loss for a region valued for its peaches, nectarines, apricots, pears, and other fruits. In addition, thousands of the around 250,000 animals bred in the area drowned, Coldiretti said.

On Tuesday, the Italian government took the first major step for the affected areas, earmarking €2 billion in emergency funds.

Roughly €200 million will go to farmers to compensate them for their losses on crops and help them replace damaged machinery. Another €300 million will be for export-led companies and €20 million for schools.

Almost €600 million were set aside for salaries of workers who are temporarily without a job and another €300 million for the self-employed forced to shut down their businesses. Tax and utility bill payments will be suspended until August.

«As usual, we Italians are very good at dealing with emergencies,» said Antolini, the geologist.

«A bit less with prevention.»

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