Intense flooding ravaged parts of Italy during the last few weeks, raising questions about citizens’ safety, governmental regulations, and the nation’s agricultural sector.
Two meters of rain fell in northern Italy over the course of 24 hours on Thursday, November 6th, leading to monumental flooding and landslides. 82 percent of Italy’s towns were reported to be at risk of flooding from the rain, endangering over 5 million people. In the Tuscany region of Italy, over 300 people had to be saved in the town of Carrara after 200 meters of riverbank collapsed and water swept throughout the town. Two people reported missing were ultimately found, though many more remain unaccounted.
Municipal governments were swift to demand caution from citizens and released warnings that people should avoid driving and to seek higher ground if possible. Schools across Italy closed last week in an attempt to keep Italians safely home and out of flooded streets and buildings.
Despite such actions, citizens have been quick to accuse the Italian government of mishandling the situation. Due to its mountainous landscape, much of Italy is already vulnerable to flooding and landslides. Exacerbating this matter is a history of unregulated building and poor public infrastructure. Italy’s recent economic crisis has exacerbated government neglect of infrastructure, and the government has struggled to appropriate funds for necessary repairs. In Genoa alone, damage to infrastructure from the November floodings has been estimated to cost around $253 million. Francesco Vincenzi, president of a national association that represents organizations overseeing flooding issues, remarked that “what is really alarming is how little has been done in recent years” to make Italy safe from flooding disasters.
Even amidst massive infrastructure damage and significant danger to human life, the greatest consequence of recent floodings has proved to be the damage to Italy’s agricultural sector. Just over a month ago in mid-October, 30,000 proscuitti were swept away when dirty water flooded stables in the Parma and Piacenza regions of Italy. In November’s round of flooding, the fertile northern regions of Italy have been hit especially hard, with torrential rain ravaging orchards and vineyards throughout Liguria, and Vento. As a result, much of Italy’s wine and maize industries have been heavily damaged.
Climate change and flooding are especially relevant to Europe, where farmland and forest land cover 90% of the EU’s land surface. Extreme weather often strikes Italy during crucial crop development stages, making the country dangerously susceptible to significant losses. Consequentially, any adverse alterations to agricultural output have had major implications for rural populations and their respective income. Whenever the critical agricultural industry is hampered, dependent populations suffer.
Indeed, projections about the potential damage arising from climate change throughout Italy and the European Union are not easy to ignore. Estimates by the European Commission indicate that, withholding human intervention against environmental degradation, climate change will cause €190 billion in economic damages, amounting to a total loss of 1.8% of GDP. In the specific case of agriculture, estimates indicate €18 billion in damage. Moreover, southern Europe, where Italy is located, is expected to bear 70% of the loss burden.
Quite notably, since 1998 the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported that Italy still maintains Europe’s largest land area of organic farms as well as the highest number of organic farms. On the other hand, flooding this year has cost the Italian agricultural sector $1 billion dollars in damages and setbacks. In a nation heavily reliant on both tourism and agriculture, the impact of torrential rain and extensive flooding should be of great concern.
Nevertheless, explanations for the sudden increase in flooding throughout Italy are varied. Human manipulation of rivers and coastlines, generally for the purpose of food and hydraulic power, is altering river and coastline morphology. This change, in turn, impacts how rainfall affects land areas and the frequency of flooding cycles. Moreover, human interaction in the form of agricultural development has altered terrestrial flood paths. Finally, atmospheric changes, whether man-induced or not, have increased the frequency of extreme weather events such as heavy rainfall and snowmelt.
At this moment, Italy sits in a precarious economic position. Already hampered by a slow recovery from its rough encounters with the 2009 EU crisis, large industrial sectors responsible for sizable portions of the national revenue are producing limited outputs. Additionally, if events such as flooding continue, Italy’s agricultural production will only be further decimated. Ultimately, only time will tell if Italy’s government is capable of organizing around better preparation and prevention. Rome will have to find a way to offer better assistance to rural regions and and impose stricter regulations that would help minimize future damage to crops and related infrastructure. Perhaps the Brussels-based Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development might offer the necessary support and guidance required for a better rural development policy. Being a member of the EU does imply undergoing a fair share of benefits and headaches, but the Italians should nevertheless make sure that they take advantage of the former as much as possible. After all, being part of a Union entails that all members help each other in times of need.