One-Fifth of Italy at Risk of Desertification, Irrigation Experts Warn

With less rain and water-saving infrastructure lacking, experts warn that the water crisis in Italy costs farmers €1 billion per year.
By Paolo DeAndreis
Jul. 23, 2021 08:17 UTC

Italy’s deser­ti­fi­ca­tion cri­sis began in the south­ern regions of the coun­try in the last few decades but is now start­ing to make its way north.

According to the most recent esti­mates by the irri­ga­tion con­sor­tia asso­ci­a­tion, Anbi, ris­ing tem­per­a­tures, extreme weather events and hydro­ge­o­log­i­cal fragility threaten 20 per­cent of Italy.

On aver­age, every year in Italy, we get around a meter of rain… But we waste almost 90 per­cent of that water since we can retain no more than 11 per­cent of the rain­fall.- Francesco Vincenzi, pres­i­dent, Anbi

The low water lev­els of some lakes and rivers worry the local com­mu­ni­ties while the con­se­quences of the water cri­sis increas­ingly affect agri­cul­ture. The farm­ers asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, believes the cur­rent water cri­sis costs Italian farm­ers €1 bil­lion per year.

What we are see­ing is the cri­sis head­ing north,” Francesco Vincenzi, the pres­i­dent of Anbi, told Olive Oil Times. In the last decades, invest­ments were made to boost the resilience capac­ity of at-risk south­ern regions such as Sardinia, Puglia or Basilicata while north­ern ter­ri­to­ries were per­ceived as safe.”

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Just a few years ago in the Po Valley, we could count on large water vol­umes,” he added. Today the sit­u­a­tion has changed, cli­mate change has shown what drought and glac­ier melt mean, snow­fall is often miss­ing and in win­ter­time tem­per­a­tures are higher. Even a sin­gle degree Celsius more than aver­age means trou­ble for the avail­abil­ity of water for agri­cul­ture and river vol­umes.”

According to the regional agency for envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion, Arpa, 70 per­cent of Sicily is at risk of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion while only 12 per­cent is con­sid­ered safe.

A bit far­ther north, Arpa esti­mates that between 30 and 50 per­cent of Abruzzo is at risk of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion. Not far, parts of Umbria and Tuscany are expe­ri­enc­ing drought, and higher tem­per­a­tures as the risk of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion in these two olive oil-soaked regions rises.

Marco Neri, pres­i­dent of the Tuscany chap­ter of the farmer asso­ci­a­tion, Confragricoltura, spoke in a press release of the need to lead our sci­en­tific research towards devel­op­ing agri­cul­ture with plants capa­ble of resist­ing to the drought.”

Vincenzi added: On aver­age, every year in Italy, we get around a meter of rain. Even if we are a south­ern European coun­try, we receive much more rain­fall than coun­tries such as Spain or Portugal. But we waste almost 90 per­cent of that water since we can retain no more than 11 per­cent of the rain­fall.”

Anbi also esti­mates that 42 per­cent of all potable water poured into the Italian pub­lic aque­ducts gets lost because of poor main­te­nance.

In Emilia-Romagna, where the Po Valley is and where many Italian agri­cul­tural goods thrive, total rain­fall did not reach half the yearly aver­age in 2021, while higher tem­per­a­tures and the Po River los­ing vol­ume mul­ti­plied the dam­age done to agri­cul­ture.


Po Valley, Italy

According to the local envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion agency, the region expe­ri­enced 21 mil­lime­ters of rain­fall in June, com­pared with the 65 that were expected based on the aver­age rain­fall recorded between 1961 and 2020.

The agency said that this drop makes June 2021 one of the dri­est months since 1961. In the same period, the agency recorded higher tem­per­a­tures, with an aver­age of 22.2 ºC, which means June has been one of the hottest Junes since 1961.

Anbi esti­mated that the heat­wave expe­ri­enced in Emilia-Romagna in the last 30 days cou­pled with the rare rain­fall forced the irri­ga­tion con­sor­tia to deliver 32 mil­lion cubic meters of water, 70 per­cent of which comes from the Po River and almost two times larger than the aver­age of the last 10 years.

According to Coldiretti, drought is the biggest threat to agri­cul­ture in Italy, and it is respon­si­ble for more than €14 bil­lion in dam­ages to pro­duc­tion and infra­struc­ture in the past decade. In the last 25 years, the asso­ci­a­tion also noted that build­ing devel­op­ment and aban­doned fields made the cul­ti­vated land in Italy fall by 28 per­cent, down to 12.8 mil­lion hectares.

Agriculture is the eco­nomic activ­ity that more than any other faces the con­se­quences of cli­mate change every day, but it is also the sec­tor most focused on com­bat­ing them,” Coldiretti said.


According to the asso­ci­a­tion, cli­mate change is a new chal­lenge for farm­ers. They have to inter­pret the pre­dic­tions from the weather ser­vices and the effects on the crop cycles, on the water man­age­ment.”

Anbi has cal­cu­lated that Italy cur­rently receives five bil­lion cube meters of water less than 50 years ago.

And yet, Italy’s big­ger prob­lem is not the reduc­tion of rain­fall; it is the way it rains,” Vincenzi said. Once, we could expect to see a hun­dred storms pour­ing their meter of rain. Now, we see 10 or 20 extreme rain­fall events.”

If we could retain more water, we could cur­tail the hydro­ge­o­log­i­cal risk, cre­ate water reserves to use dur­ing drought for both agri­cul­ture and the pop­u­la­tion and even deploy a new weapon against for­est fires,” he added.

In a few cases, those water-gath­er­ing infra­struc­tures could also be used for elec­tric­ity gen­er­a­tion.

To try and address the country’s grow­ing water reten­tion prob­lem, Anbi and Coldiretti are propos­ing a national devel­op­ment plan to cre­ate 1,000 mini-lakes.

The project has won the atten­tion of the gov­ern­ment, and it is set to be included in the national resilience and recov­ery plan,” Vincenzi said. Those small lakes are to be built with the coop­er­a­tion of the local com­mu­ni­ties and with alter­na­tive mate­ri­als… It will take years, but it will allow us to retain much more water.”

If pre­cip­i­ta­tion reaches its annual aver­age of almost 300 bil­lion cubic meters each year, enough to cover the entire coun­try in a meter of water, Anbi esti­mates that 52 bil­lion cubic meters could be retained. Currently, about 5.8 bil­lion cubic meters are retained. With the small lakes ini­tia­tive, that quota could rise to seven bil­lion.

A new approach to water man­age­ment and con­ser­va­tion is essen­tial for agri­cul­ture and food,” Vincenzi con­cluded. If we look at the piv­otal role exerted by the agri­food busi­ness dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­demic, as it granted social cohe­sion, we see the con­nec­tion between the water cri­sis, agri­cul­ture and sus­tain­abil­ity.”


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