Historic drought exposes Italy’s weaknesses

(Ferrara) Dried rivers, threatened crops, rationed water… Northern Italy, in the midst of a climate emergency, is facing a historic drought due to lack of rain, but also aging infrastructure and underinvestment.

Posted at 8:08 am
Updated at 8:09 am

Andrea PATTARO with Clément MELKI in Rome
Media Agency France

“I have never experienced such a long drought. The situation is dramatic. If the water problem persists, my harvest will be 100% destroyed,” fears Gianluigi Tacchini, a rice farmer from the town of Santa Cristina e Bissone, about forty kilometers south of Milan.

Already in the spring, the threat of drought threatened, because “there was no snow on the mountains and the lakes lacked water”, prompting him to reduce his rice cultivation by 50% and increase his crops, which are less dependent on sunflowers. Forced to make decisions, he sacrificed a cornfield.

Lake Como’s water supplies “have been reduced by 75% and we have no prospect of them shutting down completely if water levels continue to drop,” Mr Tacchini warns AFP.

According to calculations by the Coldiretti agricultural union, the very water-intensive rice fields could produce 30% less this year.

In the Po Delta, between Venice and San Marino (east), the river’s low water level is so low that the waters of the Adriatic Sea rise up to 30 kilometers inland, a historic record.

In some places, the Po Observatory recorded a level seven meters below its usual level.

state of emergency

Since May, the Italian peninsula has faced an exceptionally early heatwave and lack of rainfall, particularly in the agricultural Po plain, which has been hit by the worst drought in 70 years.

On Monday, the government declared a state of emergency in five regions (Emilia-Romagna, Friuli Venezia Giulia, Lombardy, Veneto and Piedmont), four of which are irrigated by the Po River, and announced the release of an extraordinary fund of 36.5 million euros to deal with the drought.

Faced with the drop in the level of the Po, the peninsula’s largest water reservoir, used to a large extent by farmers, several municipalities have announced confinement measures: Verona, a city of a quarter of a million people, has rationed the use of drinking water, while Milan has decided to close its decorative fountains.

According to the Coldiretti union, the drought is threatening more than 30% of the country’s agricultural production and half of the farms in the Po Valley, where Parma ham is the main produce.

“In the period from January to May, 44% less rainfall fell on the national territory, which is unprecedented since the late 1950s,” points out Francesco Cioffi, Associate Professor in the Department of Hydrology at La Sapienza University in Rome.

“The lack of an effective policy for the management of water resources in recent years” worsens the situation, he believes to AFP, calling for “an extraordinary plan to modernize the water system, the development of forecasting tools”.

wasting water

According to the latest data from the National Institute of Statistics Istat, published in 2020, 36% of water reserves in Italy are lost every year due to the ailing pipeline and storage network. For the city of Chieti, the capital of Abruzzo on the Adriatic coast, this figure is even over 70%.

According to Francesco Cioffi, this high waste rate is explained by “the lack of sufficient financial resources to modernize the networks, which are often several decades old, and by management that is often fragmented and inadequate”. “It would have been necessary to invest more and better in order to make the national territory and the country’s economic and social system less vulnerable to these events,” he believes.

He believes there is an urgent need to “implement saving measures, for example in agriculture, through the introduction of more efficient irrigation techniques, the reuse of industrial water, the separation of drinking water, water for other purposes and the recovery of rainwater on a scale of individual buildings”.

Another consequence of the drought: the production of hydroelectric power has fallen sharply, while hydroelectric power stations, mostly located in the mountains of northern Italy, produce almost 20% of the country’s energy.

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