Hit by drought, Italy’s agricultural heartland feels the heat
Marcello Rossi is a freelance journalist specializing in the environment and science.
PAVIA, Italy — Under the scorching sun of a mid-July morning, Giovanni Daghetta walks across a dusty, barren plot of land on his rice farm in the province of Pavia, in Lombardy.
In a typical year, he’d be wading through 10 centimeters of water amid lush, waist-high rice plants. But today, the few stalks that have survived barely brush against his ankles, while the soil lies naked during the worst drought to hit the country in 70 years.
The problem is especially concerning in the Po Valley, where farmers like Daghetta rely on water coming from the Po River basin — Italy’s largest reservoir of fresh water — to irrigate their crops and raise livestock, producing some 40 percent of the nation’s food.
After months without heavy rainfall, compounded by a lack of snowfall during winter months and the early arrival of baking summer temperatures, the Po has now fallen to its lowest level in a century, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency in five northern regions and to enact restrictions including water rationing.
Currently, farming is where the brunt of the crisis is being felt. Agriculture takes more water from the Po River than any other sector — about 70 percent of all the yearly withdrawals — and as water levels run low, there’s a real chance of losing most of the coming harvests. Something fundamental needs to change.
One of the most important products of the Po Valley, rice is particularly at risk, as the paddy fields need to be kept flooded with water for months for the plants to grow.
“Water has more than halved this year,” recounts Daghetta, whose family has been working this fertile land for generations. And to make up for the lack of rain and the low levels in reservoirs and rivers, he’s had to use water pumps, “which are very expensive and will push up prices for consumers,” he says.
Still, Daghetta is relatively lucky. He says that in places across Lombardy and Piedmont, where about half of European rice is produced, some farmers received almost no water this season at all.
However, the water shortage did force him to abandon some fields altogether and reduce irrigation. Instead of watering his paddies every eight days, he’s now stretching the gap up to 20 days, “with obvious consequences,” he says.
Daghetta still can’t put an exact figure on how much he will end up losing at harvest, which takes place between September and October. However, he’s not optimistic: He estimates that nearly half of his rice crop is already gone, and with the plants that are still on the land growing poorly, he expects to lose almost the entire season.
The outlook is similarly bleak further east in the Po Delta, where the Adriatic Sea has crept 30 kilometers inland, exacerbating farmers’ hardship. The flow of sea water into the sluggish Po has contaminated coastal aquifers and made irrigation practically impossible, as too much salt damages the crops.
Federica Vidali knows this all too well. The 29-year-old farmer has watched as large swathes of her soy and corn fields in the village of Scardovari wilted and blackened, with seawater pushing in further day by day.
Vidali has had problems with saltwater intrusion before, but not on this scale. “Normally the anti-salt barriers stop waves and pushes back the sea,” she says. “This time, the river is losing.”
The drought could not have come at a worse time for farmers like Vidali, who are struggling with inflation and the broader economic impact of Russia’s war on Ukraine. “The cost of electricity and diesel has doubled this year, while fertilizers are three times more expensive,” she says. Adding bluntly: “I don’t know how I will get through the year.
Unfortunately, there’s little financial relief in sight.
The government recently allocated €36.5 million in emergency aid, but funding must be split between the five regions and could take years to be distributed. Crop insurance is also unlikely to be helpful, as policies generally cover damage from extreme weather events like hailstorms and short downpours — not drought.
Rethinking the river
Droughts are nothing new for the Po River basin, of course, which has suffered from them for decades. But climate change is worsening the problem.
A recent study found that dry spells in the region have generally increased since 1983, with the average annual temperature rising by about 2 degrees Celsius, and annual rainfall diminishing by about 20 percent.
The situation is predicted to get even worse over the coming years, as global warming will increase the likelihood of more severe, and more frequent, droughts and resulting water shortages.
Experts say, however, that there are things that can still be done to offset these effects of future climate change.
Some of these proposed solutions include creating more reservoirs, optimizing water usage with smart irrigation systems, adopting less water-intensive crops, building storage units to collect rainfall, and improving infrastructure.
However, all these things require planning, as well as huge investments from the regions and from Rome. But more than that, says Meuccio Berselli, general secretary of the Po River basin authority, they will require a fundamental paradigm shift.
“We got used to a situation where water has always been available for any purpose, but what we’re seeing these days is telling us that this is no longer the case,” he states. “We need to rethink our relationship with the river and stop seeing it just as a vast reservoir to exploit.”
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