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Exceptional weather becomes the new norm in exposed Italy

By Crispian Balmer and Francesca Piscioneri

ROME (Reuters) - Storms, avalanches, floods and drought have slammed Italy over the past year, killing dozens of people, as once exceptional disasters become a regular part of life, leaving the government scrambling to find answers.

"Climate change is here and we are living the consequences. It isn't some remote prospect, it is the new normal," said Paola Pino d'Astore, an expert at the Italian Society of Environmental Geology (SIGEA).

At least nine people died this week in the northern Emilia-Romagna region after some areas received half their average annual rainfall in just 36 hours, causing rivers to burst their banks and submerging thousands of acres of farmland.

Six months ago, 12 people died on the southern island of Ischia in a landslide triggered by torrential rain, while 11 people were killed last September by flash floods in the central region of Marche.

Last July, an ice avalanche in the Italian Alps killed 11 people following a heatwave that exacerbated the worst drought that Italy has suffered for at least 70 years.

"We must adapt to the new climate conditions, but not use them as an excuse," said Arcangelo Francesco Violo, the head of the National Council of Geologists.

"Intensive and disorderly urbanisation in recent decades along with high density soil consumption have had an impact."

Italy's varied geology makes it prone to floods and landslides, while the fact it is flanked by rapidly warming seas means it is vulnerable to increasingly powerful storms.

Farmers' group Coldiretti says the number of extreme weather events recorded last summer, including tornadoes, giant hail stones and lightning strikes, were five times the number registered a decade ago.

But years of often unregulated building and industrial-scale agriculture have worsened the climate threat, experts say.

RIVER WORRIES

The WWF Italia environmental group said the elimination of water-absorbing forests and vegetation along the riverways of Emilia-Romagna had amplified this week's disaster.

"A climate change adaptation policy that goes beyond how to handle emergencies and considers the effects of ordinary planning is increasingly urgent," it said in a statement.

The environment ministry published Italy's first National Plan for Adaptation to Climate Change last December, but critics say it is underfunded and accuse the government of hobbling EU efforts to cut carbon emissions.

Agriculture Minister Francesco Lollobrigida told Reuters earlier this month that the government would not turn local industry "into a desert" by imposing tough CO2-reduction curbs, while big polluting nations elsewhere were not doing the same.

But he acknowledged that a long-running drought in many regions was caused by climate change and said the country had to adapt, including by building more basins to capture rainwater, patching up leaky water networks and repairing neglected dams.

Environment Minister Gilberto Pichetto Fratin complained that projects to protect communities from flooding, such as building new dams or levees, were sometimes blocked by local pressure groups anxious to protect the countryside.

"We have to overcome the concept of always saying 'no', of not wanting any works," Pichetto Fratin told Radio 24 on Thursday. "With this climate, absolute freedom for the rivers can cause considerable damage."

Italy's national civil protection agency estimates that 94% of the country's municipalities are prone to natural disasters - making it inconceivable to protect everyone from the dangers of climate change.

However, the head of the National Council of Geologists said a mix of far-sighted investments combined with robust early-warning systems could help safeguard life.

"The (whole) territory can never be made safe. But we can mitigate the risk and adapt to living with it," Violo said.

(Reporting by Crispian Balmer, editing by Alvise Armellini and Andrew Cawthorne)