Recent Rain and Snow Not Enough to Break Italy’s Drought

Scientists say more needs to be done to adapt, from wastewater recycling to planting less water-intensive crops.

Grosseto. Italy
By Ylenia Granitto
Feb. 20, 2023 18:10 UTC
1537
Grosseto. Italy

According to the lat­est reports from the Italian National Research Council (CNR) Institute for Bioeconomy’s drought obser­va­tory, 2022 was a year of weather extremes in all respects for Europe.

In cen­tral and west­ern Europe and the cen­tral Mediterranean, 2022 was the hottest year on record. Nine out of 12 months recorded pos­i­tive tem­per­a­ture anom­alies. In terms of rain­fall, a good share of the European ter­ri­tory was still affected by a long-term severe-extreme drought at the end of January 2023.

We now real­ize that water abun­dance should not be taken for granted. The way to man­age water resources should be changed, espe­cially in some areas.- Ramona Magno, sci­en­tific coor­di­na­tior, CNR drought obser­va­tory

The sum­mer of 2022 in Europe was the hottest and dri­est of the past 500 years, as emerges from a study car­ried out by our col­leagues of the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (JRC),” Ramona Magno, the sci­en­tific coor­di­na­tor of the drought obser­va­tory, told Olive Oil Times.

We can safely say that this is nei­ther the first nor the last drought,” she added. Our analy­ses show that since the begin­ning of this cen­tury, every three or four years, Italy has suf­fered a high-inten­sity drought with a fairly long dura­tion of more than a year, which means a sig­nif­i­cant reduc­tion in rain­fall.”

See Also:Climate, Environmental Degradation Threaten European Food Security

Data from the CNR Institute of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate show that 2022 was the dri­est year in Italy since 1800, with a 30-per­cent rain short­fall at the end of the period.

The deficit rises to 40 per­cent in the coun­try’s north­ern regions, where 11 out of 12 months, except for December, saw below-aver­age rain­fall.

Snowfall was also below aver­age and lower than the pre­vi­ous sea­son – the Apennines were the most affected area, with the snow­pack lim­ited to the high­est peaks.

Snowfall in the sec­ond half of January 2023 par­tially restored the deficit, espe­cially in cen­tral regions, but it is not enough to reach the aver­age val­ues from 2011 to 2021 in the Alps.

In addi­tion to the lack of rain, the high tem­per­a­tures led to a mild win­ter,” Magno said. This hap­pened mostly in the north­west of the coun­try, where the above-aver­age tem­per­a­tures turned into strong heat­waves from late spring to sum­mer.”

Furthermore, the hot and dry win­ter winds accel­er­ated the process of evap­o­ra­tion of mois­ture of soil and led to an early dry­ing of it,” she added.

The lat­est report from the Institute of Services for the Agricultural and Food Market (Ismea) found the pro­longed lack of rain and the high sum­mer tem­per­a­tures ham­pered the veg­e­ta­tive devel­op­ment of the olive trees in many areas of Italy, sig­nif­i­cantly con­tribut­ing to the drop in olive oil pro­duc­tion.

With reser­voirs and ground­wa­ter depleted by months with­out rain, farm­ers made wide use of emer­gency irri­ga­tion when­ever pos­si­ble. Only at the end of August did the rains return and bring some relief to farm­ers.

The drought has grad­u­ally moved toward the cen­ter and part of the south­ern regions,” Magno said. Until the begin­ning of autumn, cen­tral Italy also had prob­lems with low water avail­abil­ity in rivers and lakes, also con­sid­er­ing the win­ter’s poor snow­fall that was halved com­pared to the pre­vi­ous sea­son.”

Many thought that the rains we have seen in mid-late August and September 2022 and January 2023 could end the drought,” she added.

However, Magno said that despite these rains par­tially reduc­ing the water deficit in cen­tral Italy, the long-term water deficit remains in the coun­try.

If we ana­lyze the long-term deficit, over 12 to 24 months, the rain was insuf­fi­cient to reverse the deficit in the north,” Magno con­tin­ued. Moreover, aver­age tem­per­a­tures were higher than nor­mal in this first month of 2023, thus increas­ing the evap­o­ra­tion from the soil.”

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As the drought obser­va­tory recently tweeted: while drought con­tin­ues to affect areas of Europe and the Mediterranean basin, north­ern Italy suf­fers from a pre­cip­i­ta­tion deficit that has lasted for two years.

In broad terms, given the trend of pre­cip­i­ta­tions, which tend to decrease over time and change their dis­tri­b­u­tion through­out the year, we will see increas­ingly fre­quent and intense droughts alter­nat­ing with peri­ods of rains, which can be very heavy and, there­fore, cause flood­ing,” Magno said.

Declining rain­fall in the region also coin­cides with increas­ing demand. As the world pop­u­la­tion steadily rises and lifestyles change, the drought obser­va­tory fore­casts water avail­abil­ity in Europe, espe­cially in the Mediterranean areas, will tend to decrease by 2040.

It may seem obvi­ous, but the main advice of experts for farm­ers is to save water, which can be done fol­low­ing their prac­ti­cal advice.

We now real­ize that water abun­dance should not be taken for granted,” Magno said. The way to man­age water resources should be changed, espe­cially in some areas.”

Let us con­sider, for exam­ple, that Italy’s north­ern regions are less used than the south­ern ones to drought events,” she added. Since the farm­ers in the south have long since become accus­tomed to hot and dry weather, many of them have already imple­mented drip irri­ga­tion sys­tems.”

The first sug­ges­tion is to opti­mize irri­ga­tion. Besides, we sug­gest opt­ing for crops and plant olive vari­eties more suit­able to with­stand pro­longed lack of rain,” Magno said. We also invite farm­ers to apply pre­ci­sion agri­cul­ture.”

Thanks to the use of satel­lite images, it is pos­si­ble to detect the area of the field where the plants are most stressed and to inter­vene only in that spe­cific part, thus sav­ing water but also fer­til­iz­ers and the amount of work, which trans­lates into eco­nomic sav­ings,” she added.

Furthermore, the experts now encour­age the re-use of urban waste­water. In some coun­tries, the use of sewage water for crop irri­ga­tion after a puri­fy­ing treat­ment is already wide­spread, while in coun­tries like Italy is emerg­ing now,” Magno said. We think this should be a research sec­tor to be imple­mented.”


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