Massimiliano Claps
Max Claps (Research Director, IDC Government Insights)

I was born in Ravenna, on the east coast of Emilia-Romagna, one of the most liveable and prosperous regions in Italy. Emilia-Romagna is home to 7.3% of the Italian population. It accounts for 9.2% of GDP and 11.8% of agricultural production.

It headquarters globally successful firms in automotive, motorbikes, food production, ceramic tiles, textile and fashion, biomedical engineering, construction, woodworking equipment and much more. Unemployment is at 5.1%, well below the 2022 national average of 8.2%. Life expectancy is higher than the national average.

There are white sandy beaches, natural reserves in coastal wetlands, and beautiful hills and mountains, which combined with a rich heritage — Ravenna alone boasts eight UNESCO heritage sites — and amazing food and wine attract tens of millions of tourists every year.

Besides these material treasures, there is a unique way of living in Emilia-Romagna. And even more so in Romagna, where I grew up; there’s an old saying that you can tell if you are in the Romagna part of the region because when a stranger shows up at someone’s door, they are welcomed with a smile and a glass of wine. On the Emilia side, they’ll be equally warmly welcomed, but with a glass of water!

There is a sense of shared joy, a passion for life and a pride in belonging to one’s community. A shared sense of resilience that drives people to go through the hardness of life with a smile on their face, and always trying to put a smile on someone else’s. Because there is always a little bit of magic, even in the small things.

As Federico Fellini, the world-famous movie director and one of the most beloved children of our region, once said: “Life is a combination of magic and pasta.”

It feels good to be a Romagnolo. And to visit Romagna … unless you happened to be there in the first two weeks of May 2023.

Smart River and Water Management: Preparing for Foreseeable Disasters

After many months of drought, in the first 17 days of May 2023, Romagna was hit by as much rain as it usually gets in six months. In some areas this meant up to 400mm of rain in two weeks. To put things in perspective, one of the worst hit municipalities, Faenza, which is home to 60,000 people, experiences on average 760mm of rain a year.

The stereotypical rainy London gets 690mm a year. The result of this unusually heavy rain was that 23 rivers burst their banks, resulting in 50 floods; 305 landslides devastated hills and mountains, 14 people died and over 36,000 people were displaced from their homes. The estimated economic damage to homes, factories, farms and public infrastructure is north of €5 billion, with around €600 million just to rebuild public infrastructure.

Climate change is increasing the frequency and intensity of these extreme weather events. Long-term environmental sustainability actions, which are progressing way too slowly, will not be enough.

Resilience to short-term shocks is imperative. Money is not the problem; in fact, there is an estimated €8 billion available from the Italian COVID Recovery and Resilience Plan and the “Italia Sicura” (Safe Italy) plan to make public infrastructure more resilient. This, however, is at risk of not being spent, or not spent well, because of lack of planning, skill gaps, slow public procurement, and insufficient competencies and capacity to audit.

Technology innovation is not a silver bullet, but when implemented wisely it can help fill some of those gaps. The increasing availability and granularity of data from satellite images, IoT sensors, weather monitoring and forecasting models already tell us that Italy has the highest amount of rain in Europe, with 300 billion cubic meters a year.

Building permitting systems, public works inspection systems and other sources tell us that Emilia-Romagna was the fourth worst region in terms of soil consumption in Italy in 2021, including in areas at high risk of flooding. By building on the existing knowledge, collecting more data and turning the data into intelligent smart river and water management insights, governments, water utilities and the public could make better decisions across the disaster resilience life cycle, from mitigation to preparedness, from response to recovery.

  • Mitigation: Governments can use a wide variety of tools to develop hazard maps that can identify areas most at risk and feed into planning and preparedness systems. Policymakers and building inspectors can feed intelligent insights into planning and operational simulation tools, such as digital twins, to simulate the impact of building code and permitting decisions to reduce soil consumption and require the use of more resilient building techniques and materials.
  • Preparedness: The benefits of building flood resilient systems (dams, levees, flood walls and diversion canals, etc.) to protect natural systems such as wetland, marshes and beaches, and using resilient building techniques such as tiled pavements instead of concrete for parking lots and roads to increase water absorption, can be augmented by making these assets and tools intelligent. The intelligence from those systems can enable real-time or preventive decisions about diversion tactics, rather than reacting only when the flood is too close.
  • Response: Real-time data from weather forecasting models, integrated with data from dam and river sensors, should be analysed to detect anomalies to automatically raise emergency alerts that can then promptly notify citizens, rather than having to rely on fire and police patrols roaming the roads of small rural villages and towns using loud speakers to tell citizens to evacuate homes or expecting mayors to post videos on social media hoping everybody pays attention, as happened in the past two weeks in Romagna. More intelligent use of data can also provide insights for command-and-control personnel to coordinate first responders and orchestrate the supply of food, clothes and medicine for shelters, instead of relying on emails, spreadsheets and phone calls.
  • Recovery: Digital twins would allow evidence-based infrastructure planning decisions and monitoring the progress of investments aimed to rebuild infrastructure, therefore increasing speed and transparency of projects to avoid wasting time and money. AR/VR tools can help engineers conduct inspections when anomalies are detected.

The same technology infrastructure — with a few additions in terms of sensors and applications — will provide intelligent insights for other use cases, such as water conservation in dry seasons, leakage reduction, biodiversity protection in rivers, marshes and ports, sustainable water transportation, and water quality.

Only two days after the peak of the emergency, millions of euros, as well as food, clothing and other supplies, had been donated to flooded areas in Emilia-Romagna from all over Italy and beyond. Boosted by the typical Romagnolo spirit, spontaneous neighbourhood efforts have mushroomed to clean mud from houses, roads and farms. Beaches have already been cleaned for the upcoming tourist season. But that resolve to recover quickly should not allow us to forget what happened. We know what the future holds. Extreme weather events will happen, not only in well-known high-risk flooding areas, such as the Indian Subcontinent, Southeast Asia, and Pacific and Caribbean Islands, but also in traditionally safer regions of the world.

Technology innovation will be critical to climate change resilience. But technology alone will not be enough. It’s not enough to feel compassion to help when disaster happens. We need to invest in mitigation and preparedness measures that generate the highest long-term returns.

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