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 through a dusty, arid plot of his rice paddy in the province of Pavia, Lombardy.
In a typical year, he would wade through 10 centimeters of water amid lush waist-high rice plants. But today, the few surviving stems barely graze her ankles, as the ground is bare during the worst drought to hit the country in 70 years.
The problem is of particular concern in the Po Valley, where farmers like Daghetta rely on water from the Po basin – Italy’s largest freshwater reservoir – to irrigate their crops and raise livestock, producing around 40% of the country’s food.
After months without heavy rain, compounded by a lack of snow in the winter months and the early onset of scorching 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 adopt restrictions, including water rationing.
Currently, it is in agriculture that the worst of the crisis is being felt. Agriculture takes more water from the Po River than any other sector – around 70% of all annual withdrawals – and as water levels drop there is a real chance of losing most future crops. Something fundamental has to change.
thirst for rice
One of the Po Valley’s most important commodities, rice is particularly at risk, as rice fields must be kept flooded with water for months for plants to grow.
“The water has more than halved this year,” says Daghetta, whose family has worked this fertile land for generations. And to compensate for the lack of rain and the low levels of reservoirs and rivers, he had to use water pumps, “which are very expensive and will drive up prices for consumers”, he says.
Still, Daghetta is relatively lucky. He says that in places in Lombardy and Piedmont, where around half of Europe’s rice is produced, some farmers have received almost no water this season.
However, water scarcity forced him to completely abandon some fields and reduce irrigation. Instead of watering his paddies every eight days, he now extends the interval to 20 days, “with obvious consequences”, he says.
Daghetta still cannot quantify exactly how much he will end up losing at harvest, which takes place between September and October. However, he is not optimistic: he estimates that nearly half of his rice crop has already been lost, and with the plants still on the ground growing poorly, he expects to lose most of the season.
Salt water woes
The outlook is also bleak further east in the Po delta, where the Adriatic Sea has crept 30 kilometers inland, compounding the hardship for farmers. Seawater flow into the Lazy Po has contaminated coastal aquifers and made irrigation virtually impossible, as too much salt damages crops.
Federica Vidali knows this all too well. The 29-year-old farmer has seen vast swaths of her soybean and maize fields in the village of Scardovari wither and blacken as seawater penetrates day by day.
Vidali has had saltwater intrusion issues before, but not on this scale. “Normally, salt barriers stop the waves and repel the sea,” she says. “This time the river loses.”
The drought could not have come at a worse time for farmers like Vidali, who are battling inflation and the wider 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’m going to spend the year.
Unfortunately, there is little financial relief in sight.
The government has recently assigned 36.5 million euros in emergency aid, but the funding must be divided between the five regions and could take years to be distributed. Crop insurance is also unlikely to be helpful, as policies typically cover damage from extreme weather events like hailstorms and short downpours, not drought.
Rethinking the river
Droughts are of course nothing new for the Po basin, which has suffered from them for decades. But climate change is making the problem worse.
A recent study found that droughts in the region have generally increased since 1983, with the average annual temperature increasing by about 2 degrees Celsius and annual precipitation decreasing by about 20%.
The situation is predicted worsen over the next few years, as global warming will increase the likelihood of more severe and frequent droughts and resulting water shortages.
Experts say, however, that there are still things that can be done to offset these effects of future climate change.
Some of these proposed solutions include creating more reservoirs, optimizing water use with smart irrigation systems, adopting less water-intensive crops, building storage units for collecting rainfall and improving infrastructure.
However, all of these things require planning, as well as huge investments from the regions and from Rome. But more than that, says Meuccio Berselli, Secretary General of the Po Basin Authority, they will require a fundamental paradigm shift.
“We have gotten used to a situation where water has always been available for any purpose, but what we are seeing these days tells us that is no longer the case,” he says. “We have to rethink our relationship with the river and no longer see it as a vast reservoir to be exploited.”
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