On October 2nd, 2020, Storm Alex dumped more than 500mm of rain on parts of the Alpes-Maritimes department of southeast France in a matter of hours.
That’s the equivalent of half-a-tonne of rain per square metre over the 10-hour period that the storm battered the area.
Ten people died and dozens of homes were washed away – as were bridges and businesses – as almost a year’s worth of rain caused flash floods and mudslides in the Vésubie, Roya and Tinée valleys, turning the usually gentle rivers into devastating torrents.
Alex and its aftermath was termed a ‘once in a generation’ flood but it was, in fact, the second ‘generational’ weather event in less than a month along the Mediterranean arc, after floods hit the Gard in mid-September.
In November and then again in December 2019, Cannes and its surroundings were partially inundated. Four years before that, on the night of October 3rd and 4th, 2015, an épisode méditerranéen in an area stretching from Mandelieu to Antibes left 20 dead.
Today, three in five people in France are at risk of a climate-linked natural disaster such as flooding, fire or ground movement – and the risk is worsening.
Global warming has seen disasters double in 20 years, according to United Nations’ figures, while major events – categorised as those that result in 10 or more deaths or €30million in damage – have quadrupled in France over the same period.
This week southern France is once again being hit by a deluge that has forced schools to close and authorities to warn people to stay at home.
Now, residents in areas repeatedly hit by floods in the Alpes-Maritimes are demanding public authorities work to protect them from a threat that hangs over their heads every autumn when weather conditions subject the area around the Mediterranean to unique pressures.
As global warming increases sea temperatures, so-called épisodes méditerranéens are becoming more intense and more frequent. The Côte d’Azur has no choice but to adapt. So what – if anything – is happening?
Property owners who decide to stay are choosing to protect and adapt their homes to the annual threat of floods. One told France Info radio recently that she recalled being told as a child that furniture in a family friend’s home would be taken through a large trapdoor in the ceiling of a family friend’s home into the roofspace when the nearby river was in flood.
“People lived with the risk,” she said. “You can’t stop water with a wall. It falls from the sky.”
It’s a sentiment that officials are embracing. Valérie Emphoux, director of the flood prevention department of the Sophia-Antipolis agglomeration said: “We must adopt the flooding spirit.”
Those who live near water have to accept flooding as part of life, she added, ‘even if it means seeing it sometimes flow through the garden’.
Meanwhile, authorities routinely write to homeowners whose properties have boundaries with waterways, urging them to take down walls, or other impediments to natural water flow, while also urging those whose properties are crossed by waterways to maintain them properly.
Town planners must also bear part of the blame for the worsening effects of flash floods in an area well used to them. The demand for property in the southeast of the country has prompted a wave of building work.
Tony Damiano, of Avenir 06, which works to promote natural heritage in the department said. “In the last 10 years alone, it’s got worse in terms of urbanisation. The attraction of the Côte d’Azur, the sea, the aura of the area… Prices have increased considerably and all this brings in people for whom the protection of nature is not a priority. It has been sold to the highest bidder.”
In fact, human developments along the PACA coast since the 1960s has done nothing to help the natural flow of rivers to the sea. Roads, railways and buildings – many with underground car parks – block water unnaturally, giving rising waters nowhere else to go than the streets at times of heavy rain.
But it’s not all bad news. The floods of 2015 have prompted action. Where 26 houses once stoodin the hamlet of La Brague, near badly affected Biot, a €10million project will widen the riverbed as part of a ‘rewilding’ of the site to allow the river to flood naturally and safely.
An earlier, similar project, dating back to 2011, had an impact in 2015. The banks of La Brague river were widened and deepened. It helped lower river levels upstream by as much as 50cm.
Meanwhile, in Cannes-Lerins, €20million has been allocated since 2016 to develop sustainable flood prevention systems. Some 40 homes have been demolished to create a basin to slow down the river.
“The objective is to slow down floods,” town councillor Michel Tani said. “Every minute gained allows us to make property and people safe. When the weather is bad, gaining 10 minutes is vital.”