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On 9 a.m. on 19 May, it was still drizzling in Modigliana, a hillside village in Italy’s Tuscan-Romagna Apennines. In the previous days, very heavy rains had caused dozens of landslides, blocking almost all the roads, isolating the town and its 4,300 inhabitants. All communications – landline, cellular, and internet – were knocked out, and the television was only working sporadically. Many locals were without water for more than 24 hours as a result of the damage to the water networks. Across the region, 17 people died.
On 15 May, the mayor, Jader Dardi, had warned citizens of a “red” weather alert, the highest level of precaution. It was the second time in a month. Already in early May, heavy rain had caused landslides and road subsidence. This time the mayor closed the schools, urged all residents not to move from their homes, and advised pet owners to stock up on food and water for the next 48 hours.
The advice was heeded by Vitaliano Massari, a former IBM software developer and for many years an employee of a local electronics company. He lives on a Modigliana farm with his dog Leo, a friendly 9-year-old Drahthaar. By 19 May, four days had passed since the mayor’s announcement, and Leo had gone without food for two of them.
Vitaliano, an amateur radio operator, had to make some decisions. In the absence of stable telephone lines, he was communicating via radio with others all over Italy. He had also managed to retrieve from the local fire brigade some TETRA handsets – an emergency radio system used by police forces across Europe – and passed them to the mayor.
That morning, Vitaliano asks by radio if anyone wants to join his mission and walk the 3 km to his farm to save Leo. His friend Don Stefano Rava answers the call.
The two, equipped with radios, run into a river of mud. They have to cut through the woods. After an hour and a half of walking in difficult conditions, Don Stefano decides to call a halt. Vitaliano continues on an increasingly impassable path, and soon finds himself up to his thighs in mud and barely able to move.
Fortunately, Vitaliano has the radio. With the help of a friend, a priest, he manages to alert the rescue services. A group of volunteer firefighters leaves the village, also on foot. When they finally arrive on the spot – thanks partly to the directions of Don Stefano who had remained on the path – Vitaliano has only just managed to extract himself. He had been in the mud for an hour and a half, but was eventually spat out alive, minus his boots. The firefighters take him back to the village, with Leo – they had managed to reach the cottage by building a path across the mud with foliage.
Vitaliano tells me his story over a glass of Sangiovese. It is one of many from the days of heavy floods in May. Simona Carloni, PR manager of the Kara Bobowski cooperative, which cares for around 20 people with disabilities, tells me of worried family members unable to communicate with their loved ones, and staff stranded in neighbouring municipalities. There are the stories of the evacuees (about 200 people) and of those who could no longer reach their homes. Some residents had found that their front doors opened onto a void, their farmyards and gardens having disappeared in the landslide.
The sleepless nights during and after the flood; the roar of water after small streams had turned into torrents and torrents into rivers; the buzz of the helicopters that transported not only people but also small tractors, bulldozers, and animal fodder – these are all recurring themes in the accounts of those who lived through those days.
The flooding in Emilia-Romagna affected both the hilly Apennine areas and the plains. The plains were flooded, with water invading cellars, ground floors and even first floors. In some cases it reached a height of 6 metres, covering houses, fields, and businesses. The hills and mountains, meanwhile, simply disintegrated.
A total of 48 municipalities were affected. The heavy rains caused 23 rivers and streams to overflow, creating huge material damage and displacing more than 23,000 people.
The total damage as estimated by the region amounts to €8.9 billion, of which €1.8 billion is for road repair alone.
Climate change and cementification
The Modigliana disaster is impressive, but it is not isolated. Many areas of Europe have had a mild winter, resulting in welcome low bills despite the high price of gas due to the war in Ukraine and blackmail by Russia. Northern Italy also had a dry winter with very little rain. The years 2017, 2021, and 2022 were among the seven driest of the last 50 years in Emilia-Romagna, with annual rainfall below 700 mm.
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The areas with the worst flood damage are also those which have had the worst droughts. In the Forlì-Cesena province in 2021, there was a rainfall deficit of over 380 mm compared to the average for the 1991-2020 period. These prolonged and increasingly frequent dry spells have hardened soils, reducing their capacity to absorb water. Despite this worrying trend, local and national policy has not paid much attention to soil protection.
Stefano Bonaccini, who has presided over the region (for Partito Democratico) for almost ten years, has been widely criticised for the region’s continued overdevelopment. On 30 May, flying over the devastated Modigliano hills by helicopter, he hastened to point out to the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, at his side, how “there is no urbanisation, there is no cement, it’s soil. These were places where there were no trees after the Second World War, there has been reforestation”.
Central and northern Europe – the focus of rainfall-related erosion by 2050
The region passed a law on the subject in 2017. Yet, due to various derogations, this legislation was not really applied and so the cementing continued, further waterproofing the soil. In 2021 the region was third in terms of land artificialisation, and Ravenna – another city in Romagna affected by the flood – was second. Only Rome was ahead of them.
The disasters caused by the flood are the unfortunate combination of various factors. Climate change is causing droughts that have altered the soil, while at the same time rainfall that in the past might have been distributed over months is now concentrated in a few days.
Then came an especially unusual weather situation, with heavy rainfall as early as the beginning of May followed by the mid-May storm Minerva. This explosive depression was dubbed the “perfect storm”.
But behind this were the mistakes and carelessness of short-sighted policy, even at the local level. Soil protection has been neglected and there has been little effort to prepare for change in a region where streams have historically been channelled.
The situation in Europe
Beyond the extraordinary meteorological event, Emilia-Romagna’s situation is common to other parts of Italy. Indeed, it should serve as a warning to the whole of Europe.
The European Commission’s Soil Data Centre (ESDAC) predicts that, due to increasing rainfall, water-related erosion will worsen by 13-22.5 percent by 2050, with central and northern Europe the most affected. The main cause is identified as climate change, but land use and agri-environmental policies play an important part.
The European Climate and Health Observatory confirms the high probability of extreme rainfall for all areas of Europe, although with a lower probability in the Mediterranean region. Floods, after all, are the commonest type of natural disaster in Europe. In 2021, for example, heavy rainfall in July in northern and central Europe caused several rivers to overflow and killed 220 people, most of them in Germany.
As early as 2012, the European Commission published guidelines to limit, mitigate and compensate for soil sealing, with the goal of zero net land artificialisation by 2050. However, it left to the member states the choice of policies to achieve this goal. In the meantime, many countries continued to pour concrete. In the period 2006-2015, more than 500 km2 were sealed up in both France and Turkey. The figure was more than 400 km2 in Germany and Spain, more than 300 in Poland, and almost 100 in the small Netherlands. Germany has the highest absolute figure for artificialised land surface, at more than 15,000 km2 in 2015, almost twice as much as Italy.
The impact on local communities
Modigliana today is known as “the village of a thousand landslides”. A few months ago it was known better for its wine and fruit cultivation, as well as for its timber and electronics industry. It was also promoting itself as a hiking destination. All these sectors suffered extensive damage in May.
The mayor tells me that the assessed damage amounts to €150 million, a huge amount for a small municipality. €1.8 million is already earmarked for emergency measures. During the two floods in May, almost 700 mm of rain fell on the town, more than during the whole of 2021. Torrents swelled and tributaries brought large quantities of water and debris, causing the Lamone river to overflow. Parts of the town of Faenza were flooded, while mud clogged sewage systems.
The mayor tells of mountainsides that crumbled, with centuries-old chestnut trees sliding from the woods onto the roads. There were four “XL”-rated landslides, an unprecedented scenario even for geologists. A bridge collapsed under the ferocious pressure of the water and its load.
Certainly, he tells me, there is a problem to deal with in terms of maintaining and clearing the waterways. He does not deny that people have built properties in areas at risk, sometimes close to the riverbeds, where they should not have done so.
He cites another flood in 1939 and mentions that the number of inhabitants remained unchanged. That is a way to be optimistic about the future of the village. As with all mountain villages in the Apennines, this one is also faced with depopulation.
More than a month later, there has been the pain of the 17 dead and the economic losses. There has also been the relief of seeing thousands and thousands of volunteers who have arrived from all over Italy. Some of these people have stayed in the area for many days or even weeks. They have removed water with water pumps, shifted earth with shovels, and gathered up debris and ruined electrical appliances.
In just over a week, 45,000 tonnes of undifferentiated waste was collected in the affected areas, three times more than in the whole of 2022.
The legend played out of the hard-working, likeable and slightly mischievous Romagnolo, who rolled up his sleeves and got busy without complaining, all while singing “Romagna mia”, the song synonymous with this corner of Italy. Indeed, a video of volunteers singing this song while shovelling mud went viral and was then broadcast on all the national news channels.
There was also anger. Those same “mud angels” staged a protest on 18 June, unloading earth from a trailer in front of the headquarters of the Emilia-Romagna regional government and pointing fingers – and shovels – at the administration inside.
In the meantime, many problems await solutions across the Romagna region. This is especially true in the hill villages, where the complete repair of the road system requires resources that simply do not exist at the moment.
Against this background a tug-of-war has broken out, pitting the region and the provinces (all under the leadership of the centre-left Democratic Party) against the right-wing government of Giorgia Meloni, which has given the go-ahead for around €2 billion of relief aid but delayed the choice of a special commissioner for over a month. In early July, the nomination fell to the army general Francesco Paolo Figliuolo, who was formerly special commissioner for the Covid-19 emergency. He flew over the affected areas again in a helicopter with regional president Bonaccini, but for now remains without a portfolio.
For many mayors and residents living in this area of Italy, the delays and turnabouts of national politics are often hard to understand.