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Droughts To Floods, Italy As Poster Child Of Our Climate Emergency

Floods have hit northern Italy after the longest drought in two centuries. Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini explains how these increasingly frequent events are being exacerbated by human activity.

A woman in yellow stands crying on a bridge surrounded by floodwater

Frederica Pizzuto cries after she sees her newly renovated house for the first time after it has been devastated by a meters-high flood wave.

Oliver Weiken/DPA via ZUMA
Carlo Petrini


FAENZA By now it is undeniable: on the Italian peninsula, the climate crisis is evident in very opposing extreme events (think drought and floods), which occur close together and with increasing frequency. Until just a few days ago, almost the entire country was gripped by the longest drought in two centuries.

Now, however, extreme rainfall has hit the state of Emilia Romagna in the north of the country causing casualties and displacing over 10,000 people.

In 18 hours, the amount of rain that falls on average in a month has fallen. This has caused all rivers to overflow, flooding lowland towns and cutting off hillside towns due to landslides on many roads. Fields have become lakes and orchards that were at a crucial stage of ripening have been severely damaged.

It would be a blessing if this dreadful situation were a sporadic and isolated phenomenon, but unfortunately this is not the case.

What will happen tomorrow is unknown, yet we know it will happen.

Not an isolated event

Italy, like the rest of the Mediterranean basin, falls into what scientists call “climate change hotspots” — areas of the planet that suffer the effects of the climate crisis with greater intensity and with consequent impact on natural and human systems.

Data provided by the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) in 2021 confirm this by showing that 94% of Italian municipalities are at risk of landslides and floods.

The rain is unable to penetrate the soil.

A study by the Legambiente Observatory revealed that in just 10 years, the annual number of floods from heavy rains has increased from 10 in 2012 to 150 in 2022. A chronic state of drought that makes the ground impermeable exacerbates the effects of rainfall. The rain is unable to penetrate the soil — the rain floods the cities but can’t reach the aquifers, which is exactly what we want to avoid.

An Italian fire truck lies in a ditch following heavy floods.

An Italian fire truck lies in a ditch near Castel Bolognese, Italy, following heavy floods.

Oliver Weiken/DPA via ZUMA

Excessive construction

As if all this were not enough, there is the additional factor of human nature, adding to this perfect storm. I am talking about the phenomenon of excessive construction that causes roads to turn into torrents, dragging along everything they encounter in their path.

In a country such as Italy, which is on the verge of a demographic crisis, every day in 2021 an average of 19 hectares per day were being cemented over, at a rate of two square meters per second. Inhabitants are decreasing but buildings are multiplying. These buildings do not have the slightest, rational reason to exist. Yet it is made possible by the fact that Italy still lacks a law to curb land consumption, despite the fact that there have been many proposals on the issue for more than a decade.

The environmental crisis has reached the stage of irreversibility.

The environmental crisis has reached the stage of irreversibility and is manifesting itself in all its complexity and interconnectedness between natural, economic and social systems.

There is no more time to think, or worse yet, bury our heads in the sand as the political class does. Action must be taken and adaptation strategies developed so that the conditions are in place for the human species to continue living on the planet (or the more pessimistic would say, to just survive).

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Emma Albright, Michelle Courtois and Anne-Sophie Goninet

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