Don’t get mad! Road works in front of your house are actually a unique opportunity to understand what lies ahead in the next few years, if not the next few days. And it’s not just the elderly who should be staring at those ditches. Because in those ditches lies the history of our territory and a crystal ball to see into its future.
Looking down, we can see layers of clay with sandy intercalations and stones forming lens-like shapes that are repeated in different places and at different depths. But who brought those large stones before our front doors? And when?
Nearly all of our cities and towns are located in flat areas, and nature has only two ways to create such surfaces: by leveling the elevations or by filling the lower areas with materials carried by water, which the water itself manages to level.
The first system takes tens of millions of years, and could not have worked in our geologically very young country; filling depressions, on the other hand, is extremely fast, and has given us huge areas on which to build houses, factories, roads and railroads.
Think not only of the extensive plains, with the greatest concentration of population, but also of the narrow Alpine valley floors, where curious inhabitants can notice the same materials deposited, perhaps with much larger boulders.
The fact that these are called ”floodplains” should itself put us on alert – we only realize what this term means when a river emerges from its banks and resumes the work that was interrupted, centuries ago or a few decades ago.
Building cities near rivers undoubtedly had many advantages, for example building roads and railroads on the plains. Besides being less expensive, this stemmed from the need to connect centers that were built and developed in those areas. And where could we have developed our agriculture if not on “floodplains”?
Clearly, we had to occupy areas at high risk of flooding and it is impossible today to abandon them, but relocating some of the houses built on riverbeds would be infinitely less expensive than the price we find ourselves paying after each rain that is slightly heavier than usual.
Over time, weather events that we call “extreme” have become increasingly normal, and we must learn to live with a rapidly changing geomorphological environment. Any attempt to hold one position stable will amplify the rates of transformation of other parts of the territory. In the Netherlands, agricultural areas are being abandoned, letting them flood and thus saving the cities.
Adaptation to climate change – let’s call it by its name, global heating – requires choices for which the cost-benefit analysis must also extend to future generations. Strategic retreat – which has been evaluated as the best strategy for responding to sea level rise for 1/3 of the world’s coasts – must also find its counterpart in the most inland areas, where we have been building under the illusion that it was possible to “embalm” the land, and where geomorphological processes are most intense and rapid. This requires a high level of maturity of the populations involved, to ensure their active participation in decisions, which will certainly not be easy.
The timeframe over which these choices can show themselves successful is much longer than that of a legislative term, and only the presence of aware citizens will allow politics to embark on this path, if it even has the capacity to do so.