Promoting Biodiversity, Improving Soil Health Are Key to Tackling the Global Water Crisis

Researchers in Italy argue that building more reservoirs is insufficient to combat the global water crisis; solutions must be found throughout the hydrological cycle.

By Ylenia Granitto
Jul. 5, 2023 15:37 UTC

As the global water cri­sis emerges as one of the most urgent issues related to cli­mate change, the sci­en­tific com­mu­nity is expand­ing its efforts to work out prac­ti­cal solu­tions.

From this per­spec­tive, the Italian Center for River Restoration (CIRF) has pro­posed mea­sures to address the nation­wide lack of water, which could also be imple­mented glob­ally.

It is clear that we will increas­ingly have to learn to live with the two extremes of long droughts and intense rain­fall and con­se­quent floods, which only a more nat­ural ter­ri­tory and hydro­graphic net­work can cope with.- Giuliano Trentini, pres­i­dent, Italian Center for River Restoration

The cur­rent sit­u­a­tion finds more than a quar­ter – 26.9 per­cent – of the European Union in a warn­ing con­di­tion of drought and 10 per­cent in a state of alert, accord­ing to the lat­est data from the European Drought Observatory.

Nonetheless, in the first half of 2023, Italy received abun­dant rains, which even caused deadly flood­ing in the north­ern region of Emilia-Romagna.

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Since the equiv­a­lent of five to six months’ worth of rain fell in 40 days between May and the first half of June, the hydrol­ogy group of the National Research Council’s insti­tute for geo-hydro­log­i­cal pro­tec­tion cal­cu­lated that civil, agri­cul­tural and indus­trial use should be sat­is­fied by the water reserves this sum­mer in Italy. Though, a deficit of snow and water in the ground per­sists.

All this indi­cates the strict link between cli­mate change, the increased fre­quency of extreme weather events and the inten­si­fi­ca­tion of the hydro­ge­o­log­i­cal cycle.

This con­di­tion must be con­sid­ered in the con­text of the ongo­ing global cli­mate and eco­log­i­cal cri­sis,” CIRF pres­i­dent Giuliano Trentini told Olive Oil Times. Their pri­mary cause is a decades-long pur­suit of eco­nomic devel­op­ment that has ignored the ecosys­temic con­straints and is now lead­ing to severe con­se­quences, con­sid­er­ing that more than 80 per­cent of nat­ural habi­tats in Europe are in a poor state of con­ser­va­tion.”

CIRF researchers take into account that the con­ti­nent has seen wet­lands shrink by 50 per­cent since 1970, a reduc­tion of fish and amphib­ian pop­u­la­tions of 71 and 60 per­cent, respec­tively, in the last decade and a decline of bee and but­ter­fly pop­u­la­tions by one-third with one-tenth of these species on the verge of extinc­tion.

We must con­sider that, to over­come the water cri­sis, there is a hier­ar­chy of issues to address,” Trentini said. At the top stands the pro­tec­tion of bio­di­ver­sity, and only at the end do we find tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions.”

The first thing to con­sider is that human per­ma­nence on Earth requires bio­di­ver­sity to be safe­guarded,” he added. Seen as a lux­ury by many, this is a pri­mary neces­sity and implies that food pro­duc­tion should be first and fore­most sus­tain­able. Starting from this premise, we can ques­tion how water is used.”

According to the United Nations, agri­cul­ture accounts, on aver­age, for 70 per­cent of all fresh­wa­ter use glob­ally and even more in arid and semi-arid regions.

Estimates from the National Association of Consortia for the Management and Protection of Land and Irrigation Water (ANBI) show that in Italy, 14.5 bil­lion cubic meters of water are used for agri­cul­tural pur­poses per annum, equal to 54 per­cent of total water use.

Farmers can there­fore play a sig­nif­i­cant role in pre­serv­ing water resources. In this regard, soil man­age­ment emerges as a crit­i­cal ele­ment.

Considering the type of soil, its geol­ogy and slope, through micro-inter­ven­tions in the farms, it is pos­si­ble to slow down the water so that it infil­trates more,” Trentini said. For exam­ple, just work­ing the soil min­i­mally and using the cover crop­ping method helps the soil have a greater capac­ity to retain water.”

These and other highly effec­tive actions are pre­sented in the Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM) plat­form drawn up by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Environment,” he added.

The mea­sures pro­posed in the strat­egy are multi-func­tional, includ­ing inter­crop­ping, plant­ing green cover, early sow­ing, mulching and tra­di­tional ter­rac­ing, among oth­ers, which aim to pro­tect and man­age water resources and address water-related chal­lenges to achieve and main­tain healthy ecosys­tems while offer­ing mul­ti­ple ben­e­fits.


We know sev­eral Italian farm­ers that carry out hill­side olive farm­ing who are already apply­ing these mea­sures work­ing on the abil­ity of the soil to have a greater water reten­tion,” Trentini said. In con­trast, other com­pa­nies do not care and nour­ish unsus­tain­able crops imported into areas expe­ri­enc­ing a water cri­sis.”

These aspects are often con­nected. It is then a pri­or­ity to rethink which crops are wor­thy of being encour­aged, favor­ing less water-demand­ing crops, vari­eties, types of farm­ing and actions in the field,” he added. All this becomes cru­cial since our soils are becom­ing dys­func­tional, prone to deser­ti­fi­ca­tion, less capa­ble of retain­ing water and nutri­ents and with a lower pro­duc­tion capac­ity.”

Data from the Italian Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA) indi­cate that 70 per­cent of soils in the E.U. are degraded, and 28 per­cent of Italy shows signs of deser­ti­fi­ca­tion.

ISPRA warns that the degra­da­tion process, which is inex­tri­ca­bly linked to bio­di­ver­sity loss and the impacts of cli­mate change, is a com­plex phe­nom­e­non affected by many inter­de­pen­dent fac­tors.

These con­sist of a reduc­tion or loss of the bio­log­i­cal and eco­nomic pro­duc­tive capac­ity of the soil resource – one of the most urgent envi­ron­men­tal issues and a global chal­lenge that affects every­one through food inse­cu­rity, ris­ing food prices, and the loss of bio­di­ver­sity and ecosys­tem ser­vices.

In light of the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion, we call for the adop­tion of mea­sures aimed at increas­ing the eco­log­i­cal func­tion­al­ity of agri­cul­tural areas, which means enhanc­ing their abil­ity to retain and let rain­wa­ter infil­trate and to pre­vent soil degra­da­tion,” Trentini said.

CIRF researchers also con­sider the urban envi­ron­ment and the effi­cient use of water net­works to com­plete the frame­work.

The lat­est report by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) on the Italian water sys­tem found that more than half of Italian munic­i­pal­i­ties (57.3 per­cent) have total water losses equal to or greater than 35 per­cent of the vol­umes intro­duced into the net­work. In this con­text, the pri­or­ity should be the reduc­tion of net­work losses.

At present, the pub­lic debate in Italy cov­ers almost exclu­sively a solu­tion to cope with the water cri­sis, namely build­ing new arti­fi­cial reser­voirs,” Trentini said. Yet, going back to the afore­men­tioned hier­ar­chy of issues, the reser­voirs are found only at the end and should be con­sid­ered not exclu­sively but along­side many other tech­no­log­i­cal or agro­nomic solu­tions.”

We then advise against build­ing new dams along rivers, while we are more open to small hill­side reser­voirs aimed at col­lect­ing sur­face runoff, although they are not free from crit­i­cal issues,” he added.

CIRF researchers note that reser­voirs can fur­ther cause soil con­sump­tion and alter­ation of the water and sed­i­ment flow regimes, which is already hap­pen­ing with the exist­ing reser­voirs.

They observed that in Europe, dams are cur­rently the most sig­nif­i­cant pres­sure fac­tor in at least 30 per­cent of water bod­ies and the cause of fail­ure to achieve good eco­log­i­cal sta­tus in at least 20 per­cent.

The researchers noted that, among other issues, the reser­voirs dis­perse a large amount of water by evap­o­ra­tion (the Italian aver­age is no less than 10,000 cubic meters per annum for each hectare of water body sur­face area, and this quan­tity is greater in the south and for smaller reser­voirs).

Moreover, their water can reach high tem­per­a­tures, caus­ing anoxic con­di­tions, algal blooms and the devel­op­ment of cyan­otox­ins, one of the most impor­tant emerg­ing prob­lems world­wide. These are all fac­tors that com­pro­mise the use of these waters.

The best place to store water is the aquifers,” Trentini said. Today, it is pos­si­ble to apply strate­gies for man­aged aquifers recharge (MAR) that bring many ben­e­fits beyond that of stor­age.”

Among other things, high aquifers sup­port numer­ous indis­pens­able humid, lentic and lotic habi­tats; they slowly release water into the hydro­graphic net­work, sup­port­ing low flow rates; and they coun­ter­act the intru­sion of the salt wedge,” he added.

MAR sys­tems cost an aver­age of €1.50 per cubic meter of annual infil­tra­tion capac­ity, while for reser­voirs, the costs can reach €5 to €6 per cubic meter of vol­ume,” Trentini con­tin­ued. Controlled recharg­ing sys­tems con­sume much less land and, in addi­tion, it is eas­ier to find suit­able sites for them.”

Finally, a fur­ther area CIRF con­sid­ers is waste­water reuse for irri­ga­tion. According to the European Commission Joint Research Centre (JRC), roughly half of Italian agri­cul­tural irri­ga­tion demand could be sat­is­fied by this source.

The Italian leg­is­la­tion was restric­tive on this mat­ter, but the new E.U. Regulation 741/2020 recently entered into force opens the door to this usage.

In con­clu­sion, it is clear that we will increas­ingly have to learn to live with the two extremes of long droughts and intense rain­fall and con­se­quent floods, which only a more nat­ural ter­ri­tory and hydro­graphic net­work can cope with,” Trentini said.

To do this, it is nec­es­sary to intro­duce a truly inte­grated adap­ta­tion strat­egy, start­ing from an exten­sive plan for the regen­er­a­tion and increase of bio­di­ver­sity, as sug­gested by the cur­rent European reg­u­la­tory strate­gies and pro­pos­als,” he con­cluded.

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