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Natural risk management in the Po Basin, Italy

Adriana May

Why is research on the economic impact of natural disasters so important, especially now? The answer lies in our daily life experiences.

In Italy, as in many other European countries, natural disasters are part of our history; these kinds of phenomena affect the economy, but addressing them integrates the resilience formed as part of our cultural heritage.

Natural events do not care about administrative borders, demonstrating the need for transnational policies, particularly as a growing number of regions face similar challenges as a result of climate change.

"addressing natural disasters integrates the resilience formed as part of our cultural heritage."

At a European level, we need cohesive policies, particularly with regard to setting common standards for data and information, sharing experiences and methodologies, identifying those risks that affect strategical infrastructures and setting transnational policies for the main river basins.

The Solidarity Fund for post-disaster recovery is a much appreciated measure, but, for the future, we need to invest in prevention.

The Italian regions have legislative power with regard to spatial planning, as well as risk management; the national state sets the legislative framework, has a coordinating role and is the source of a relevant share of the funding.

In the Po Basin, an area of 71.000 square Kilometres and 16 million inhabitants that encompasses seven Italian regions and one Swiss canton, the ?modern approach? to natural risk management (NRM) was developed following the disaster that occurred in Valtellina and other mountain territories in 1987.

Heavy rain lasted for days, mountain slopes collapsed, huge amounts of debris choked streams and a huge landslide (around 40 million cubic metres of rock) destroyed more than 3 km of the valley, including villages, infrastructures and fields.

Fifty-two people died in the disaster. A total of EUR 894 million (equivalent to EUR 2.1 billion in today?s money) of public funds was invested in immediate damage recovery, and a reconstruction plan worth EUR 1.2 billion was launched.

To prevent a repeat of such a disaster, the national and regional governments set up comprehensive prevention and emergency management policies:

Spatial planning at regional and local levels is now based on previous natural risk assessment: Since these maps influence land use, they are built at a very detailed, local scale.

Structural works for risk mitigation: new technological solutions for flood containment and slope stabilisation and protection for houses and infrastructures have been adopted.

A regional system to monitor the main landslides and rivers, connected to alert functionalities, has been developed.

Detailed emergency plans for residual risk now exist; these are modeled on subsidiarity-based civil protection, where local authorities are the first respondents.

Maintenance is split into three areas: structural works, river beds and banks, and slopes and woods. Traditional agricultural practices were and still are quite effective in risk mitigation.

An additional step that is currently being worked on isdelocalisation measuresfor those buildings built during the economic boom (before risk assessments were carried out) and located in areas affected by relevant risks.

This integrated approach is based on two pillars: multilevel, participatory, subsidiary and flexible governance and a multiscale, cartographic, open data knowledge platform.

The governance actors are public governments and administrations, agencies, not-for-profit associations, technical professionals, enterprises and universities. At basin level, the Po District Authority, comprising representatives of state ministries and regions, supports national, regional and inter-regional cooperation. The model is flexible, and the roles and tasks for each actor change depending on the policy action.

"emergency plans are modeled on subsidiarity based civil protection, where local authorities are the first respondents."

The knowledge platform is developed at the local scale. Detailed data and information are collected in line with common standards; circular data flow ensures permanent updating, and wide-scale maps and analysis are produced through specific indicators and geographic information system tools.

In Lombardy, we face constant environmental challenges, but these cause much less damage than in the past. We cannot stop natural phenomena, but we can live with them; the key words from our experience are adaptation and resilience.

This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL

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This article appears in the A regional geography of COVID-19 Issue of TerritoriALL