Madeira is known as the Pearl of the Atlantic. But now the island has been laid waste by torrential flooding and rivers of mud. A month’s worth of rain fell in just 11 hours, but that is not all. Experts say the island has undergone over-rapid development over the last 30 years. The regional government has been criticised for pushing ahead with building work despite concerns for the environment and health and safety.
Lying 500 kilometres off the coast of Morocco, Madeira is only 57 kilometres long and 22 wide. But the island is such a concrete warren of motorways and tunnels that experts say it resembles a “Swiss cheese.”
“Many of the health centres, fire stations and public buildings have been built in these flood risk areas. They are right next to or on top of diverted water courses.” said Helder Spinola of the organisation ‘Quercus Madeira.’
Intensive building work means the packed-down soil has become impermeable, vastly increasing run-off in the event of a deluge.
Experts say prediction and prevention is the key:
“Madeira used to be heavily forested, particularly high up. Trees help to hold the water back and so these forests should be made into protected areas. We also need to plan ahead for situations like these and install barriers if necessary.” said Felipe Duarte Santos, a climatologist.
Each year, the island’s population swells with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of tourists, drawn by the climate and modern development, much of it funded by the EU as part of a scheme to help
underprivileged peripheral regions.
The island’s government has refused to be drawn into the argument, citing “exceptional weather conditions” as the primary cause.