This winter has brought little precipitation to Italy, and the country might face another year of drought, after last summer’s emergency in northern regions of the country, reports The Guardian.
Last summer Italy declared a state of emergency in five northern regions due to drought, and the government announced €36.5 million in emergency funds to help the affected areas. The drought posed a threat for agricultural production in the Po basin, which suffered the worst drought in 70 years.
The Po is the country’s longest river, starting in the Cottian Alps near the border with France and flowing across northern Italy until the Adriatic Sea just south of Venice. The environment group Legambiente has warned about the current lack of water in rivers and lakes, with the Po having 61% less water than the normal at this time of year. Venice is also experiencing problems with low water levels that make navigation impossible in some of its canals, due to several factors that include the lack of rainfall.
The amount of rainfall in the north of Italy was 40% down in 2022, and low precipitation has continued into 2023. The president of the Italian Meteorological Society, Luca Mercalli, expressed hope that the deficit situation could be compensated in the spring, usually the rainiest season in the Po valley: “If we have no spring rain for two consecutive years then it would be the first time this has ever happened”.
Droughts affected the Po valley in 2007, 2012 and 2017, and scientists warn that more frequent droughts are a sign of a changing climate. According to Coldiretti, Italy’s largest agricultural association, the drought caused €6 billion in damage to agricultural production in 2022. Dry conditions are also having an impact on hydropower production in Trentino, said Alessandro Bratti, the president of the Po basin authority. Furthermore, because of low water levels in the Po, seawater can travel further up the river and into aquifers, leaving them unusable for irrigation and making desalination necessary for drinking water.
Bratti said at the moment there is a voluntary protocol in place to encourage farmers to use less water: “There needs to be a law that gives the basin authority the power to work out the problem and decide what to do – it could be telling farmers to stop drawing water for a month or stopping hydroelectric power for a week”. The projects to tackle the drought with the funds released last summer have been slow to progress.
In an article published in Nature Italy, Stefano Fenoglio, professor of zoology and hydrobiology at the University of Turin, and founder of Alpstream, a research centre for the study of river systems in the Alps, said the river regime in the north of Italy is becoming more Mediterranean-like, with intermittent water courses that have no water for months at a time. As a consequence, those river species that do not have time to adapt are disappearing.
Last summer’s drought also led to an increase in pathogen concentrations, as rivers without enough water cannot dilute them. Fenoglio explained that while treatment plants purify wastewater, dilution in rivers also has helps in this process. The Alpine region in Italy is very exposed to climate change, and tackling drought should be a priority, according to the scientist. “Drought is treated like an acute episode, but it’s becoming a chronic one now”, he said, calling for long-term water planning and a system that uses water more sparingly.