Droughts In Italy: Regions Declare State Of Emergency

“We must take actions and we believe it is right to do our part,” publicly stated Beppe Sala, mayor of Milan, referring to the declaration of the state of emergency and the decision, taken by the local authorities, to turn off public fountains and to introduce daytime water rationing (on top of the already-in-place nightly restrictions). These extreme measures are a result of the unprecedented dry season that Italy has been experiencing and which may lead to catastrophic outcomes. 

Water scarcity should not have come unexpectedly. In fact, in March 2022, when the situation was still under control, the Joint Research Center (JCR) of the European Commission Global Drought Observatory (GDO) issued a report delineating a tragic picture and warning against future challenges. According to the GDO’s analysis, the current dry conditions are a result of the lack of precipitations since September 2021. Severe dry conditions have been detected starting from February 2022, with strong repercussions on river flows and water availability for both the agricultural and the energy sectors. Water reservoirs are below minimum historical values (1970-2019) and the 2021/2022 winter season registered a 65% increase in precipitation deficit compared to the 1991-2020 average. 

The most affected part of the country is the northeast, in particular the regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and Emilia-Romagna. Through these regions flows Italy’s longest river (652 km), which is currently suffering its most severe drought since 1952, according to Italy’s Po River observatory. Fabrizio Crucio, chief of Italy’s civil protection department, stated that the river is up to 80% lower than usual. In such drastic conditions, the Po will not be able to provide enough water for the irrigation of the crops in the Po Valley — the most important agricultural valley in Italy, providing some 40% of the country’s produce — nor to generate hydroelectric power supplies. Coldiretti (the Italian farmers’ association) has estimated a 30-40% reduction in yields of fruit and vegetables and a cost of more than 3 billion euros, which will weigh on consumers’ shoulders, as they prepare for a spike in prices. 

While Roberto Cingolani, minister for the ecologic transition, announced that the government will “improve the monitoring of water scarcity,” Italy seems to be avoiding much deeper systemic problems: its notoriously wasteful water infrastructure and one of Europe’s largest water footprints. ISTAT (Italy’s National Statistics Agency) estimates a loss of 42% of drinking water from distribution networks each year, which is largely due to old and poorly maintained pipes.

Investments for the renovation of water infrastructure appear absolutely essential, especially given the lack of improvements in terms of climate change: while the situation is already critical, it might worsen in the years to come. These investments must be accompanied by a change in the mentality of the people, as Italy consumes, on average, 66% more water than the global average (in relation to its population). Measures taken to improve the efficiency of the water management system will be crucial to keeping the nation’s taps flowing, as droughts and heatwaves become more and more frequent and risk crippling the agricultural and energy sectors — and, as a result, affecting the Italian population. 

Camilla Giussani